This article is part of Talent Insider, a series containing expert advice to help small business owners tackle a range of hiring challenges.
Entrepreneur Deidre Mathis made an effort to not Google Donna Harris, her new business mentor, before their first meeting. Most of Mathis’ past mentors had been men, and she wanted to enter this relationship with an open mind, she said.
The two joined Insider’s entrepreneurship mentorship program in September — an eight-week initiative, in partnership with Indeed, designed to help five small-business owners tackle talent-related challenges like hiring to scale up — where Mathis assumed she’d get advice on business finances and standard growth procedures. Initially, what she most wanted from the relationship was to improve her recruiting and retention plan, she told Insider.
But, she said, the positive affirmations, conversations about establishing a strong work culture, and advice on motherhood came unexpectedly from Harris, a serial entrepreneur who founded the venture-capital firm Builders and Backers. Those pieces of advice were most beneficial.
“Once I started sharing those things about myself, that’s where I felt closer to her,” said Mathis, the founder of the hostel business Wanderstay Hospitality Group. “It really dawned on me how life-changing it could be to have an older woman in your corner, to share her life experiences and affirm you.”
Through the mentorship relationship, Mathis identified her values and mission, and enshrined those in her company culture. The exercise helped her be more intentional in writing a job description, which ultimately drew more candidates for a needed role, and map out a future for her business based on her goals.
It can be difficult for founders to separate their personal goals from the ones that others — like prospective investors, mentors, or fellow founders — impose on the company. That was something Mathis said she’s experienced.
“The noise was very loud — almost every program I’ve been in has been about explosive growth,” she said of previous mentorship opportunities and pitch competitions. But that wasn’t always her end goal.
Instead of centering the mentorship on major financial or expansion goals, the two determined what Mathis hoped to achieve as a human, like a flexible work schedule and financial freedom that allowed her to care for her new baby.
It was important to have these conversations at the beginning of their relationship because, without that understanding, Harris’ advice might not have aligned with Mathis’ intended outcome, the two agreed.
“The more that we peeled back the layers of family, goals, what she really wants to accomplish, then I felt like I could be more useful and more tangibly helpful,” Harris said.
While every business is different, there are similarities when it comes to hiring, growth, and maintenance, the two agreed. Because of that, Harris was able to share tactics with Mathis that she used in her own non-hospitality businesses.
One of Mathis’ goals was to hire a manager. Harris tapped her previous experiences and suggested crafting unique and compelling titles for this open position. For instance, they changed the application title from a “manager” role to a more specific “front-of-house manager,” which resulted in more applicants, Mathis said.
Additionally, Harris helped Mathis with her employee retention by strengthening her company’s culture.
“She sent over documents to help me understand her company culture better, which in turn is helping me think about what we can do as a company to make our company culture better,” Mathis said, adding that Harris shared her mission, vision, and values documents as a template.
With these documents, Harris coached Mathis through the values-creation process, where the two determined the ethos of Mathis’ business based on her personal values and priorities.
“As a small-business owner, your personal values and your business values are an overlapping Venn diagram,” Harris said. “Put your values down on a piece of paper and think about how those turn into specific behaviors.”
With this in mind, they discussed how the company’s values would determine everything from the duties of the new manager to the tasks and decisions of the housekeeper and Mathis’ role in the company.
Even with more than 15 years of experience in business, mentoring young entrepreneurs is a way for Harris to learn, she said. For example, Harris had to educate herself on the hospitality industry to offer useful tips and insights.
What’s more, it reminded her of the breadth and depth of issues that small-business owners face, she said.
“It’s a really good reminder to do your own housekeeping,” Harris said, adding that throughout the process, she reflected on whether she was paying enough attention to her own company culture, the efficacy of her hiring process, or what she’d tell herself if she were the mentee.
For Mathis, the most important lessons she learned from the mentorship program were geared toward her future, she said.
“We’re in totally different industries, but it doesn’t matter,” Mathis said. “It’s another woman in business, and seeing little bits of her reminds me a little bit of me and my story when I am 10, 15 years from now.”