ceo-mentor

The image that comes to mind when considering business mentoring is that of an experienced leader acting as a teacher or guide to a new and impressionable employee. But this kind of guidance and shared wisdom can be beneficial for just about anyone, and that includes CEOs.

Here’s a look at how CEOs can go about searching for a mentor, and how the relationship can help the protégé to navigate challenges and problems.

Mentoring vs. coaching

Suzanne de Janasz and Maury Peiperl interviewed a series of mentors and protégés for a Harvard Business Review story titled “CEOs need mentors too.” They note that traditional sense of mentoring and the positive results that can come with it. And they point out that CEOs will likely have had mentors on their path to their leadership position. “But their arrival at the top suddenly narrows the available and appropriate options,” they explain.

So the search for a mentor may be harder for those that have reached that status. And the authors point out that mentoring differs from the kind of coaching that can be available in the corporate world.

“Although executive coaches are often superb at providing feedback and closing gaps in specific managerial skills, precious few have actually worked in equivalent roles themselves,” they write. “Mentors, by contrast, are role models who have ‘been there and done that.’ They can offer timely, context-specific counsel drawn from experience; wisdom; and networks that are highly relevant to the problems to be solved. And unlike company-managed mentoring programs, CEO mentoring is driven by the mentee, reflecting a level of customization rarely provided to people in the ranks.”

Look outside of your circle

If CEOs examine their network of colleagues and contacts and no potential mentors come to mind, they will need to increase the search range. In a story for Bloomberg, Amy Barrett writes that organizations related to the business may be a prime place to look.

“Attend meetings of your local chamber of commerce and other local business groups, alumni networking and charity events, and events sponsored by national groups such as the National Association of Women Business Owners and the National Federation of Independent Business,” she says. “Be sure to work the room, meeting as many people as possible. The more people you meet, the better your odds of hitting mentoring gold.”

She adds that being prepared with a brief description of the business can help move the introduction process along in these scenarios, and also to be subtle in what you seek. In other words, “don’t come on too strong.”

“… Never say you are looking for a mentor — that implies a big commitment and will send most people running,” she writes. “Instead, ask if you can set up a time for a quick coffee or breakfast to talk some more.”

Experience is everything

It isn’t necessarily a must that a mentor comes from the same exact field or industry as the CEO, but it certainly helps to make the connection stronger. The mentor’s experience level should be extensive enough to understand potential issues and conflicts related to that industry. As Jerry Jao, CEO and founder of Retention Science, writes for Entrepreneur, they should already have “walked the walk.”

“The best mentors have successfully navigated the same industry as the entrepreneur and can provide insight on the obstacles faced by a new leader,” he says. “A solid mentor might not automatically have all the answers, but will know the questions to ask or a direction to guide you in. In speaking with you, he or she will also try to understand where you’re coming from, which can make all the difference.”

Keep personal and business weaknesses in mind

CEOs in search of a mentor should focus on keeping their trouble spots in a top-of-mind status. That may not be comfortable, but personal and professional development is what mentoring is all about, and it will help them to target the right kind of mentor. Here’s how Barrett describes it for Bloomberg:

“First, think about what you need. Then go shopping. Consider the areas in which your skills aren’t as strong as you’d like and the goals of your company. If you’re thinking of selling abroad, you may want someone with global experience. See an initial public offering in your future? Look for someone who has taken a small company public.”

Networking boosts

In business, networking is always important, and it applies to the mentor process, too. When CEOs find a mentor, they can also potentially open up a new branch of contacts and experts. If the mentoring relationship is a positive and productive one, the mentor may introduce the CEO to others that can provide guidance.

“Even if a mentor can’t help you on a certain issue, chances are he or she knows someone who can,” Jao explains. “This person’s networks and resources are likely much more extensive than your own and a mentor’s referral or introduction carries more weight than a business card at a networking event. Building a strong relationship with a mentor will broaden your network exponentially.”

More than just the business

The mentoring relationship doesn’t have to be restricted to industry-related or procedural matters. There is value in exploring the personal and behavioral tendencies that play a part in a CEO’s day-to-day, like confidence, leadership and work-life balance. Jao writes that there is “a lot at stake when it comes to their ventures” in his Entrepreneur piece.

“Everyone is looking at you to lead, and it’s not uncommon for CEOs to lose themselves as they put the company’s best interests first,” he explains. “A mentor can help you take a step back and offer a chance to focus on you as an individual, which is essential for maintaining your sanity and your company’s successful growth.”

Set the ground rules

Once a CEO has made a mentor connection, there are some things that should be agreed upon to keep the relationship productive and confidential. As de Janasz and Peiperl write in their Harvard Business Review piece, “This emboldens mentees to disclose without fear of repercussions.”

Here are a few of their tips:

Establish purpose: “… Interactions are designed to deliver what both see as the aim: helping the CEO traverse the learning curve more quickly and perform role functions more effectively.”

Be prepared: “… The expectation that both parties will prioritize and prepare for meetings that are set and organized by the mentee. It’s never easy to carve out time on a CEO’s calendar. But to engage in the kind of mentoring described here and stick with it, the executive must make it a part of his or her workflow.”

Set an agenda: “Sessions should have formal agendas, defined by the problems currently confronting the CEO and shared far enough in advance to allow mentors to reflect on their experience.”

Session length: “Regular sessions — fairly long but fairly infrequent — are a must. Putting dates on the calendar allows the CEO to set aside some thorny issues that might otherwise be a nagging distraction, knowing they will be thoughtfully addressed in due course.”

Read More: How to Be The Best Mentee You Can Be