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10 Key Rules For Building Powerful Mentor Relationships

Relationships can be one of the most effect tools for professional growth.

Tara Wilson
Source: Tara Wilson

Tara Wilson is a two-time entrepreneur and CEO of Tara Wilson Agency, a Fort Worth, Texas-based experiential marketing agency that creates emotional connections between their clients’ brands and consumers through imaginative and immersive live experiences. Since 2015, Tara and her team have helped business giants like Nike and Samsung redefine brand engagement. Described by clients as a “fierce dot-connecter” and “great blend of creativity and professionalism," Tara and her team create transformative experiences that move people. Tara has appeared on a variety of national media outlets including The Today Show, Smart Money’s Small Business, MSN’s Business on Main and Fox Business. In 2017, Tara Wilson Agency was ranked No. 901 on the Inc. 5000, a prestigious list of the fast-growing companies in America.

Tara Wilson
Connector-in-Chief Tara Wilson
Source: Tara Wilson

What's Tara's secret? It seems that it's her ability to not only connect the dots, but to foster and develop significant relationships. These relationships and her keen insights around mentoring that have put Tara on the map—individually and nationally. I asked Tara for her perspective on mentoring and what her "top 10" rules for success might be.

1. The mentor process can be informal – it can have a loose structure, but doesn’t have to be “formal.” What works best for me, is that I’ve cultivated informal mentor relationships. As an entrepreneur, you may not have a set group of people to turn to inside your company, whereas often large corporations have formal mentor processes. I seek out mentor relationships if I want to grow and learn. I look at other successful entrepreneurs to see how they’re doing things within their own businesses. My mentors are often not within my industry, but are entrepreneurs themselves who have had success. My approach is to contact a mentor by phone or email and schedule a time to speak with them or meet for coffee or lunch. Informal mentor relationships can be just as effective as formal ones – without committing on the calendar to regular meetings.

2. Establish a stable of mentors and “rotate” contacting them. I have a stable of three to five mentors I can turn to at different times for business advice. It’s important to have more than one to ensure you’re mindful of each person’s time. I talk to one mentor three to four times per year, and speak to others in between that time so I’m not constantly contacting the same person. You never want to take advantage of a relationship – you want your mentors to know how much you value their time.

3. Get right to the point and ask your mentor direct questions. When I call or send an email to one of my mentors, I do so with a very specific request such as “Can I have fifteen minutes of your time to discuss x, y, z issue I have going on in my business?” or “I’m having growing pains around expanding my team, can you provide advice?” Let your mentor know up front what your goals are, why you’re contacting them and the specific information you want to learn from them. If I say I need 15 minutes, I’m cognizant of how valuable their time is – I formulate direct questions before the call and only take up the 15 minutes. I will ask them how they’re doing first, but I keep small talk to a minimum and get right to the point.

4. Follow-up with a personalized thank you to show your mentor appreciation. I follow-up with a mentor by sending a thank you note versus a text or email – it’s more personalized. I want them to know I appreciate their time and I want them to take my call in the future. Taking it a step further, I try to send a meaningful thank you gift. It may be a homegrown item from Fort Worth, where I live – something they can use and consume such as a beef tenderloin from a popular local shop versus a restaurant gift card. My mentors are successful entrepreneurs and can eat anywhere they wish so I try to send them something more customized. I recently had an ice cream cart set up at a mentor’s company – his staff enjoyed sweet treats for an hour and a half and had a great time.

5. Find a mentor whose business style works for you. My best relationships are with mentors who tell me how they achieved things and tackled problems and not how I should do things. For me, a great mentor freely shares their experiences and how they dealt with challenges instead of pushing me to do something and offering advice along the lines of “this is how you should do it.”

6. Keep mentor relationships positive. While a mentor can be a sounding board, they don’t want to hear gossip or complaints. I resist the temptation to talk about anything that doesn’t pertain to the issue I’m asking my mentor to help resolve. Keeping the relationship positive and upbeat helps set the tone for when I reach out in the future and it doesn’t irritate the person I’m looking to learn from.

7. Learn to be a good listener. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to remind yourself to be a good listener. I’ve taken the time to learn to be an active listener since the relationships I’ve cultivated with mentors relies heavily on communicating and listening. It’s acceptable to take notes during a meeting, it demonstrates you are listening and want to remember what you’ve learned.

8. Be open-minded and ready to think outside-the-box. My mentors have spent years working on their successes and I listen to their experiences with a totally open mind. Chances are they’ve encountered the problem I’m looking to solve in the past. I make sure I’m mentally ready to tackle challenges in ways I may not have thought of – after learning a new approach from a mentor.

9. Close the loop with your mentor and provide an update to let them know how you applied what you learned. I follow-up in the future and let my mentor know if I resolved the issue. After our initial meeting or call, I list the important takeaways and utilize their insights to help tackle a problem. Then, I circle back with them a few weeks later and communicate where things are and how listening to their experiences was helpful. Develop a give-and-take relationship with mentors so they know they’re making a difference and have invested their time in you wisely.

10. Professional organizations can help identify mentors and connect you with like-minded business people. In 2014, I was asked to launch the local Entrepreneurs’ Organization Accelerator Program in Fort Worth, Texas to help other entrepreneurs. EO Accelerator provides members with community and support as well the opportunity to identify mentors, network and connect on a deeper level with other like-minded business leaders. They help you set goals and catapult your business to the next level.