Mentorship is one of the best gifts.
Having someone you admire invest time and energy in your goals builds successful companies and careers. Likewise, transmitting your experiences to others feels energizing. It’s what being an entrepreneur is about. Many of us are fond of our mentors, particularly if they took an interest in us while we were pushing our boulders uphill. But no one person has all the answers, and gathering multiple viewpoints is particularly important in our rapidly shifting world.
As someone who participated in an EO Forum for 25 years, I know this firsthand. I’ve made monthly peer-mentoring sessions of 10 to 12 other entrepreneurs an integral part of my ongoing education. In no small part, the knowledge I’ve gleaned from my EO peers led me to my newest undertaking.
Through the University of Missouri-St. Louis, I helped found UMSL Accelerate, an entrepreneurship certificate program that’s organized and taught by practicing entrepreneurs, and grounded in the principle of experiential learning. Of paramount importance to our students’ success has been access to mentors—both in and out of the classroom.
Why Peer to Peer?
Peer-to-peer mentorship and learning programs provide multiple benefits—not the least of which is perspective. Even if peers’ specific niches or industries differ, issues in financing, markets, technology, human resources and management often overlap. When someone presents a problem in our group, I find a greater responsibility to seek solutions, not just because my colleague asked, but because finding a solution can have positive effects on my endeavors, too.
We’ve all had that experience where we’ve stared right past the milk, asked where the milks is, then someone else comes along and shows us it was in front of our face the whole time. Similarly, when we can view a problem through our peers’ lenses, the solution often comes into focus.
Accountability is another major benefit of peer mentoring. I can always count on one of my peers to circle back days or weeks later to ask, “What happened with that thing we talked about?” Research consistently shows that accountability partnerships, formal or informal, lead to better outcomes. Imagine having a dozen partners keeping you striving toward your next milestone.
For instance, at our 2017 Ameren Accelerator—a program in partnership with UMSL Accelerate that connects entrepreneurs with investors and opportunities in the energy-tech sector—one of our startups, Rebate Bus, was wrestling to find a unified voice. Its lead mentor provided firm accountability and no-nonsense pushback on practical matters that allowed the founders to organize their goals, then focus on achieving them. As a result, Rebate Bus was able to pilot a proof-of-concept program that led to a profitable, scalable campaign for the company.
So, Where Do I Start?
Here are a few tips to getting the most out of your peer mentorship:
1. Do and make rather than sit and listen.
In a peer mentor group, most participants don’t have time to sit around and shoot the breeze for hours. That’s why we have a strong practice of doing and making rather than sitting and listening. This “doing and making” can take the form of a presentation that includes members providing shared experiences.
Construct an environment that’s action-oriented and milestone-driven. Create clarity around meeting objectives, which will remind members why they’re there. Think ahead about what value you’ll bring to the meeting so participants can take what you brought and apply it to their lives and businesses.
2. Be an advocate.
Pay it forward; give freely; make introductions. We know there’s no better sales call than one with a warm intro. We often hesitate when asked to vouch for someone else—and there’s nothing wrong with that—but oftentimes, making a phone call is a very small good-faith effort that can generate major rewards.
For example, an active mentor of WIFIPLUG, another startup at the 2017 Ameren Accelerator, found ways for the founders to demonstrate their products in front of Ameren employees—gaining both pre-orders and product evangelists. A subject matter expert happened to have a relationship with a tech giant, and he made an introduction. WIFIPLUG’s lead mentor became so engaged in the company’s success that the relationship evolved into the mentor becoming the national sales manager for US distribution.
3. Create and honor a space where people can share.
Show up—and not just in body, though that’s important, too. Lean in, and give your peers your full attention. Make eye contact. Have manners, be on time, and end on time. Furthermore, honor the space. What’s said in the room stays in the room.
In EO, our methodology is one of offering shared experiences rather than giving advice. This Gestalt approach leads to less judgment, more openness and more trust, which allows me to seek and hear much better.
Having a mentor guide you as you build a company from the ground up can be one of the most valuable assets to have, so why limit yourself to one? The only requirement for participating in peer-mentoring groups is a willingness to teach from experience, hold and be held accountable, and share with others what makes you excited about being an entrepreneur. But the rewards are boundless.
Written for EO by Dan Lauer. Dan is the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, an initiative that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in and outside the classroom and helps bring concepts from mind to market. Dan is a long-standing, successful entrepreneur who’s founded multiple companies, including Lauer Toys Inc., best known for the Waterbabies® line, which has enjoyed 26 years of continuous distribution and 23 million units sold. Through the UMSL Accelerate, he serves as a catalyst for developing a vibrant ecosystem of students, faculty and community to inspire innovation and advocate for entrepreneurship.