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Just about every salesperson has a story about how a mentor played a role in shaping his or her sales career. But finding the right person is tough. Do you aim high and search for a CEO willing to chat over coffee, or just connect someone you admire? What traits are important? Once you find a pro willing to give you advice, do you need to have some awkward conversation to define the relationship?
Rather than speculate, we asked an expert for his tips for finding a sales mentor. Ryan Schertzer, Director of Inside Sales at Seal Software, has been in sales and marketing his entire career, and credits mentoring as driving force behind his success. Here’s his take on mentorship, why it's vital to sales career development — and most importantly, how to meet and connect with potential mentors.
I consider a mentor to be a sage. That wise person who has been there and done it, twice. You really want to find the person who can speak about what they have done and what they learned from it. The person that has a proven track record and wants to share their perspective with others.
The first challenge is that very few organizations have any kind of formal mentoring program. If your company does have a program – great! Find out all you can about it and get involved. My experience has been that most organizations are well intentioned, but lack commitment to putting structure to, and investment behind, mentoring.
Second, it’s sales. The nature of sales itself certainly plays a part in making it difficult to find a successful seller to be your mentor. Salespeople are under constant pressure to perform, which drives them to focus solely on retiring their quota.
Many salespeople have the mentality that if it isn’t getting me closer to my number, then I’m not going to waste time on it. They don’t see the long play; how it can benefit the mentee as well as the mentor.
According to a Deloitte Survey of millennial professionals, 63 percent of respondents reported that their leadership skills are not being fully developed in their current role. So that tells me young workers are spotting deficiencies in their skill sets. People need to feel like they are improving, and mentors can supplement the lessons learned on the job.
Coaching and mentorship are not the same thing. But sales reps need both to grow their skills.
Mentors pick up where managers leave off. Your manager is where you go for job-related coaching. Things like best practices or specific methodology guidance would fall under coaching. Mentoring, on the other hand, tends to be bigger picture and focused on personal and career development as a holistic salesperson and professional.
Mentors should be able to offer career guidance on things like how long to stay in a role, what roles to pursue next, what hard or soft skills to develop in order to achieve long-term goals.
Additionally, mentoring is a good place to go if you need input on dealing with your current manager. It may not even be about a conflict, but advice on how to interact with them or how to handle a specific situation. Sometimes there are things you just don't feel comfortable asking your direct manager. Mentors can offer an outside perspective on things like team structure, roles responsibilities, the earning potential.
It’s so important for young salespeople to expand their professional networks and establish relationships with more experienced sales people. The older I get, the more I know I have to learn and the more I have come to value experience. It's like a 40-year-old pitcher in baseball that can't throw in the mid-90s anymore, but is a much better pitcher than he used to be because he's learned to think the game and there's very little he hasn't seen before.
Connect with sales managers who have been through 50 quarters and hit their number. There are plenty of salespeople out there that have been selling for a long time and still aren't very good at it.
When you’re seeking out a mentor, leave intimidation at the door.
Consider top performers within your company: The first thing I would recommend is looking across your internal organization to identify the people who exhibit the behaviors and results you’re looking to emulate and hold the positions you aspire to. Once you’ve identified 1-2 of those people, pick your first choice and approach them about the idea of developing a mentor relationship.
Look for outside influencers too: I’d also recommend looking outside of your organization. There are lots of industry thought leaders out there who would be willing to spend a short time with up-and-comers. LinkedIn is a great place to start looking for influencers in specific disciplines. You can be very specific in your search. There are lots of thought leaders for niches like SDR/BDR, field sales or sales management. Join some groups and pay attention to who contributes. See what they have to say. If they regularly contribute meaningful content, they might make a good target.
Set up an initial conversation: Once you’ve identified the people you want to approach, you need to be very specific in your request. You’ll likely be granted a little more access to someone internally than you will externally. For an internal person, I’d suggest starting with a monthly cadence and stick to a meeting duration of 30 minutes. The early stages of the relationship should be about getting to know the other person.
Come with a list of questions for them. Here are few:
As you spend more time with them the discussion will evolve and you might discuss career path, navigating company politics or how to build a personal sales approach.
Pro tip: When you’re seeking out a mentor, leave intimidation at the door. That high-level exec you want to ask was fresh out of college and eager to advance too. I’m sure she sought out others who had been where she wanted to go and I’m sure that even today she seeks out wise people that can counsel her in this stage of her career. So don’t be intimidated!
The first key to a successful mentor-mentee relationship: you have to like each other. I don’t mean that you have to vacation together, but you have to enjoy each other enough that there is a mutual respect and commitment to the relationship. Your mentor should be invested in your success and you should hold their accomplishment in high regard.
Second, you need to be able to handle honesty and constructive criticism from your mentor without being defensive. If you believe they are committed to your success, then listen to what they have to say even if you don’t necessarily like it. They may suggest you work longer hours or that you not pursue a promotion at that time. Your role is to understand why they think that and not argue about what they are suggesting.
Just like any relationship — professional, platonic, romantic — sometimes these things don’t work out. But I would imagine that if a mentor relationship were going to fail, it would fail early. It goes back to the success criteria that I mentioned. If you get together and don’t enjoy the discussion and don’t share a common vision, then it’s ok to mutually agree that it isn’t a good fit. No harm, no foul. Try again and find someone better suited for you.
The people that I look to as mentors have filled that role consistently for me for nearly 20 years. They have been crucial in my success.