A lot of start-ups take on a business mentor or coach, whose role is to provide advice to the business as a whole. But as a start-up CEO, there is also huge value in working with an individual mentor, who can help you be a more effective leader, or to ‘build a better CEO’, if you like. And ultimately, that’s beneficial for the business too.

I’d been running Digital Risks for around two years when I started working with a mentor in my capacity as CEO. I hadn’t actually been looking for a mentor – and he hadn’t been looking to be one – but I met him during our first funding round and we clicked on both a personal and professional level. He had an impressive reputation in the insurance industry, running both billion pound, international businesses and as an entrepreneur, building and exiting ventures. It immediately seemed like a good fit, so I decided to pursue the opportunity.

Now we’ve been meeting for a number of months, I can honestly say it’s been more valuable than the investment. Having that sounding board there has given me greater confidence in my role as CEO, the ability to make big decisions and take the risks that are necessary for the business to grow.

I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far:

Try to find a mentor organically

I found my mentor in a very organic way, but you do come across people who are actively looking to be mentors. While I can’t comment on the success of going down this route, chemistry is really important and I believe the fact that we came together naturally through our shared interests helped us get off on the right foot.

Avoid conflicts of interest

As a mentor to me personally, it’s important to know that I can be open and honest about any challenges I’m having with the business, whether that’s financial, relating to the team, or concerns about future direction. So, ensure whoever you choose doesn’t have any commercial interests in what you’re doing, or that may lead to a more guarded and less genuine conversation, and therefore less value.

Let the relationship develop naturally

Neither of us knew what value mentoring would bring at the beginning; whether I would find it useful, or if my mentor would find it rewarding. It was therefore mutually decided to establish the relationship before working out firm logistics or the commercial side of the arrangement. We agreed to have a few coffees, discuss what I wanted to achieve, how he might be able to help and see if a more formal arrangement would develop from there.

Ensure it is mutually beneficial

A good mentor’s time is valuable, so don’t expect them to do it for free in the long-term. However, a good mentor should also be interested in what you’re doing and ultimately have more than just a monetary reason to be involved. Your initial conversations should therefore be driven by interest, and you can broach remuneration later on. Also bear in mind that this doesn’t necessarily have to be money; you can also include an equity component to make it more affordable while your business is growing.

Your mentor won’t tell you what to do

A good mentor is not there to provide solutions, but rather help you to work through your own strategic 'workflow' so you can make up your own mind. More often than not, you already know what you should be doing, you just need to do it! So rather than trying to tell me what to do, my mentor will prompt me with questions, then sometimes follow up with examples of when he’s been in a similar situation, providing advice about what he’s learned.

Build in more structure over time

Meeting every four or five weeks, we’ve slowly developed more of a structure, with a rough agenda for meetings, actionable goals and milestones. This means I can avoid just talking about the issues I’m facing, but also cover more long-term goals, plans to develop and areas of my behaviour or management style I would like to work on. Your mentor provides that additional focus to stay on track and keep driving forward, so you don’t get too bogged down in the day-to-day.

Have a formal agreement in place

Once you’re sure you want to formalise the relationship, draw up a formal agreement or contract, which covers the details of any remuneration, timescales, as well as terms relating to disclosure. You’re likely to be covering quite sensitive information in your sessions, so make sure they stay fully confidential.

Working with a mentor - do’s and don’ts

  • Don’t engage with somebody whose primary motivation is commercial.
  • Don’t set a timeframe to find a mentor; finding the right person is more important.
  • Don’t expect a mentor to give you solutions. They are there to listen and help you develop your own way forward.
  • Don’t engage with somebody who has a conflict of interest; you need the freedom to be open and honest.
  • Do meet a few times, have some good conversations and personally reflect on the meeting before engaging.
  • Do put a formal agreement in place once you’re sure you want to move forward.
  • Do make sure it’s mutually beneficial. Your mentor should find the relationship enjoyable and rewarding, as well as be reimbursed for their time.

By Cameron Shearer, founder and CEO, Digital Risks