Mentor-Protégé relationships: a foundation for business success

The value and importance of mentor relationships cannot be emphasized enough. From our earliest, informal interactions learning the ropes on the playground, to managing the social interactions in high school, then college when an upperclassman took you under his or her wing, to the workplace, where more formal relationships began to be established, mentoring has always been a part of our existence. Let’s face it, we all could use a helping hand, or two or three. I meet countless businesses who tell me that having a mentor has been one of the reasons for their success.

But often, it’s not as simple as asking someone, “Hey, can you be my mentor and tell me everything that YOU know?” For one, for a potential mentor, this requires a time commitment which may be challenging due to increased responsibilities and limited time to fully engage as a mentor. For a mentee or protégé, unless you are privy to certain social or professional and industry circles, there may be a lack of knowledge of whom to approach. Further, many people suffer from what I call “mentor vision,” in that they have a specific vision for what their mentor looks like, how the relationship will develop, and the role the mentor will play. In reality, mentor relationships take many forms including formal or informal; career, company, or industry specific; or long standing or short-term, to name a few.

The good news is that, as the desire to increase business opportunities for diverse businesses continues, there is a growing trend amongst supplier diversity professionals, and the organizations they represent, to offer formal mentor protégé programs to simplify this process for you. These programs, which are sponsored and fully coordinated by the organization, have minimal criteria for participation and will pair a smaller firm with a larger, more established business that has made the commitment to mentor a smaller business for a determined period of time. The added benefit is that most of these programs are FREE and only require a commitment to attend meetings and the desire to learn as much as they can. Many of these relationships go on to extend well beyond the initial program.

Business success depends, in part, on building relationships. Mentor-Protégé Programs can be a critical piece to building that foundation. Attracting and cultivating mentor relationships can be challenging, but well worth it in the end. Here are some tips to land and keep a mentor:

Think outside the “ideal” mentor box. Mentors do not always come as you envision. They do not always have to look like you or like the same things as you in order for you to reach common ground. Be open to anyone who is willing to share information and is dedicated to your success.

Have several mentors. Don’t be afraid to have relationships with a variety of people who have expertise in areas in which you would like to grow and increase your capacity and proficiency, whether it is a business mentor, a corporate mentor, a leadership mentor, a wellness mentor, or a “5-W” mentor, aka, who-what-when-where-why (they know everything AND everybody).

Build relationships that are not just transactional. There is nothing worse than people feeling like you only call when you want something. Take a genuine interest in them and what they do, not just what you can get out of them or what they can do for you. Even as a protégé, find ways to add value to the relationship or solve a problem (which also goes a long way in helping to build critical emotional intelligence and people skills). People do not mind going out of their way when they know it will be reciprocated and you will live up to their expectations.

Create a reputation worthy of mentorship. There is nothing worse than constantly hounding people to become your mentor. Rather than continually chasing people to become a mentor, create a career or project worth mentoring. You will know when the time is right to approach someone and if you are doing amazing things, people will take notice and want to be a part of your success.

Registration is now open for UF’s Small Business and Vendor Diversity Relations Mentor Protégé Program. For more information, go to:

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