Using Experience by Proxy to Improve Your Performance and Grow Your Business

"Using Experience by Proxy to Improve Your Performance and Grow Your Business"For women entrepreneurs, there is much to learn. While your knowledge, skills, and drive got you where you are today… “What got you here won’t get you there”, as leading US executive coach, Marshall Goldsmith so eloquently titled his book for helping successful people become even more successful.

As an entrepreneur – you must learn and grow, and you must do so swiftly. One thing is for sure – your “to-do” list will keep growing. Resources will be challenged, and competing demands on your time and attention will increase.

There is a plethora of information available to help entrepreneurs with how to be effective and grow their company. The secret – don’t try to do it alone. Experience – of actually living, performing, and growing a company is the secret sauce to help you interpret and navigate entrepreneurship and to build and grow your company.  To gain an edge, consider the idea of borrowed experience or experience-by-proxy. This is where a mentor is invaluable.

Key Challenges to Overcome

The first challenge to overcome is not getting caught in the mindset that as the owner and the leader, you must know it all. It’s simply not realistic and will limit your effectiveness, and your success.  Second, unfortunately, many business owners and leaders veer away from mentorship, believing it has to be formal and will require considerable time and investment—and they’ve got too much to learn and do already. So, it’s important to understand what to expect in being mentored and the value it offers you and your company.

Overview of Mentoring

Briefly, a mentor is a person you identify to serve as a guide, advisor, and support person. Working with a mentor can be either a formal or informal process. Formal mentoring entails an identified, structured process of acquiring and working with your mentor. This usually entails a fee for services. Informal mentoring, on the other hand, is a less structured approach and often evolves organically based on relationship. Fees may not be expected. (And some are lucky to have an informal mentor for many years, as it is based on a personal relationship in conjunction with a professional relationship so it is not time, event, or role specific.)

A business or entrepreneurial mentor is a seasoned businessperson outside of your company, whom is suitable to serve as a strong sounding board and guidepost to you. It is based on their experience in building and growing their own (or others) company. And with today’s advanced technologies, there is great flexibility in working virtually with a mentor. So location does not have to be a limitation.

What’s to be gained?

As a past executive and organizational leader who transitioned as a corporate refugee (by that I mean that I started as an organizational citizen (staff member), worked my way up to management and leadership roles, then transitioned to be an entrepreneur) – I can attest to the power of mentorship. I have been fortunate to have several mentors (both female and male) during different periods of my life, and respective to distinctive roles I held in different organizations. As an entrepreneur, I also sought out a mentor outside of my organization, using a more formal, structured approach for our work together, focused on specific objectives. (This entailed investment on my part and focused on a six-month period of time.)

There is a long list of benefits in working with a mentor. For me personally, I gained:

  • greater self-awareness,
  • validation,
  • support to overcome natural fears and self doubt,
  • specific improvement opportunities to help me do better,
  • strategies to grow my business,
  • heartfelt support and guidance,
  • greater understanding of the context that influenced my work and company, and
  • connections to opportunistic relationships or networking events that led to my advancement and my company’s growth.

So, fundamentally, a mentor saves you time from “reinventing the wheel”, and it help you better understand the bigger picture. They’ve been there, done that. Like a wonderful older sibling, you can borrow from, and gain their experience by proxy. More specifically, they understand the market and lived through running a business. They are familiar with the life of an entrepreneur; they have a rolodex of contacts that they may be willing to share; they have knowledge of context and market drivers, and impediments to business growth …and the list goes on.

Additionally, a mentor can provide a much needed “release valve”; space to be vulnerable, and to receive personal and emotional support. And this is so needed for lone wolf entrepreneurs— especially women entrepreneurs who are working in today’s still male dominated markets.

Tips to Get Started

Now that you know some of the key challenges around mentoring and what you stand to gain, here are some tips to help you find your mentor:

  1. Start with yourself. Ask yourself who you know and respect right now that could be a good mentor to you. If you have a name or two – start there! This is a great means to gain an informal mentor. And it doesn’t have to be a woman, as I have found male mentors equally as helpful as women  – if you are comfortable. If it is important for you personally to start with a woman, find one. Yet understand that the opposite gender can provide you with a powerful perspective, too.
  2. Look outside. Find your mentor through researching the Internet on highly successful individuals in your industry or complimentary markets. Consultants and Coaches usually provide mentoring, too.
  3. Vet compatibility. When talking with a potential mentor – think about what’s most important for you to help you reflect, plan and take action. Discussing key qualities and attributes and expectations from your mentor will help you determine and align compatibility for working together.
  4. Take ownership and drive. To be effective, to be competitive, and drive your business to prevail, you must take charge of your own performance and your business’s growth. Mentors are there to support and guide you, expand your thinking and mindset, promote your development and grease the rails for your business’s growth. So, prepare yourself to share with them so they can best fulfill their role. Self reflect and assess: What’s working well; what keeps you up at night, novel ideas, how you are doing with life balance, and solicit ideas for what else you can and should be considering and doing to build your business. Come to agreement around regular communications and exchanges. For mentoring to be most effective, understand that it is a process not an event.

When you find the right mentor, they will meet you where you are to help you be your best and propel your company. They will help you pave the way both technically and through belief in yourself. Your work, focus, personal wellbeing, and business opportunities will advance as a result.

So, are you ready to find your mentor?


Sara LaForest is a consultant, executive/performance coach, speaker and author. She is partner in the management consulting firm, Kubica LaForest Consulting, as well as the co-author of Organizational Gravity: A Guide to Strategically Growing Your Company’s Brand, Culture and Talent (May, 2013). She and her partner, Tony Kubica, are widely published and train at events across the country. Kubica LaForest Consulting was named one of the Top 500 Leadership Development companies for 2012 by Leadership Excellence.

Sara is known for her high-touch, personalized approach in helping entrepreneurs and executives improve individual and organizational performance to drive business growth.

Learn more about her work at


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