What does a mentor do?

Essentially, a mentor sets you one or more tasks to be completed in a specific period. These tasks should be geared to something you want to accomplish, usually business- or career- oriented. You then, at the next session, report on how these tasks went and how they forwarded your steps towards what you wanted to accomplish.

Some tasks are easy, things you should do regardless of your goal or desired result. Some may be a lot harder, and may require you to look into things that do not seem related to your desired outcome.

What do the tasks look like?

Basically, the tasks require, first, a time frame. The time frame may be longer than the period between sessions, but it should be reasonably short and distinct as well as reasonable for the task.

The tasks also need to be measurable. Measurable means that you can “count” something that leads to the result. For instance, it may be something like “talking to 10 potential buyers per day”. This is not the same as “talking to 10 people per day”, but 10 people who have a high probability of being buyers. It may be placing an advertisement in the classified section of a local newspaper, or checking how many unique visits your web pages had. The thing is, your task needs something that can be counted or otherwise measured.

Tasks need to be specific. For example, your task may be to set up a presentation for a product (which might be yourself) that lasts for exactly 5 minutes, or to create an “elevator pitch” that lasts exactly 30 seconds.

Some people say that goals should be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related. The same thing applies to tasks. The more they fit into the SMART structure, the more likely they are to fit with what you want to accomplish.

Aren’t mentors just coaches under a different name?


Coaches are people who are good at a specific task or a class of tasks. They look at how you are doing the basics, and can correct your ‘bad habits’ in a specific area. If you want to be good at bookkeeping or accounting, then you need a coach in bookkeeping or accounting. If you want to do marketing right, then you want a marketing coach.

Coaches depend on knowing the right methods within a narrow area. They can teach you how to do something, and work with you to consistently do the job right, but they don’t innovate. They don’t teach outside their area of expertise. But they can get you to do your tasks effectively and (often) efficiently.

A mentor is more a generalist. He/she might know how to do marketing or bookkeeping or whatever task set you need, but they often do not know quite enough to make you an expert in those areas. Instead, they can indicate the areas where you can improve, get you focused on those areas, set up tasks that allow you to know enough to get the job done. But you might need a coach to fine-tune the work you do. Mentors point you at the right tasks, but are not necessarily the people who can get you to do the task right.

So, I need both a mentor and a coach?

Up to a point.

Often, it depends on how well you want to do the right task. Most small business people can get by with just a mentor, someone who understands how your business can be made to work better. You can hire a bookkeeper or accountant to do the jobs right, as long as you know what the right jobs are.

Bringing in a marketer does not always pay off as well as you might think – marketers often require substantial budgets, and your business might not be large enough to get the maximum returns – the sales vs cost breakeven diagram is seldom a straight line (the traditional marketing approach); it’s usually a parabola opening downwards, so, once you pass the peak, you can finish up having lots of sales and a major loss.

What your mentor does is look at the whole of your business, much as you do. He/she looks for where troublesome spots might occur, and gets you to improve those, usually based on your budget and existing sales. His/her concern is for your business to be effective for you. Once you apply the tasks and advice, then you will be in a better position to hire a coach or to get the specific expertise applied to your business. Otherwise, your problems become a positive feedback loop, and you are in more trouble than you started with.

How good should a mentor be in his/her own business?

Preferably your mentor should be able to say “been there, done that, got the T-shirt! ” It’s the width of experiences that matter in getting the right mentor for you. A mentor who knows only marketing or only bookkeeping or only accounting will not be able to help you much. Often specialists are people “who have a hammer, and thus every problem is a nail”.

You want the best when it comes to a coach, but you want width of knowledge when hiring a mentor.