A good mentor-mentee relationship can be game-changing for a startup, and therefore it is important that both – mentor and mentee – understand how they can make the engagement meaningful, productive, rewarding and fulfilling.
A good mentor can make significant contribution in not just the success of a startup, but also in the personal and professional growth of an entrepreneur. And therefore, I advise entrepreneurs to not give the tag of a ‘mentor’ loosely to anyone whose advice you seek regularly.
Mentoring is way beyond business advice and expertise sharing, and hence entrepreneurs and experts should be very, very careful when initiating a mentor-mentee relationship.
Who is a good mentor for your venture?
Someone who has a more experienced perspective on areas of the business that founders do not have an expertise in can be a good mentor. E.g. while the founders may have adequate experience in building the product/solution, they may not be as aware of aspects like distribution, marketing, sales, finance, HR, operations management, fund-raising, etc., etc. Once you identify the need gaps in expertise within your team, you will be able to identify more precisely the areas in which you need expert advice.
A good mentor is not just someone who has the expertise you seek, but also someone who has the aptitude to share and guide and teach.
When selecting a mentor founders should also check for personal chemistry. There should be respect, yet there should be space for a difference in views. If a mentor is unable to accept alternate views than his/her own, it can be a challenging situation for founders.
Also, the mentor should have adequate time and mind-space for you. Else, all the above is meaningless. (Typically I have seen that he best mentor-mentee relationships are the ones where there is at least a fortnightly call, and at least one 1-2 hour long in-person meeting a month. If these meetings are outside office, they help create a stronger personal bond. While long-distance mentoring works too, it is much harder building the personal chemistry that in-person sessions can bring).
Not all experts can be good ‘mentors’.
And not all individuals whose advice you can benefit from will have the deep level of engagement that defines a mentor-mentee relationship. And that is ok too… but that individual can perhaps be called an advisor or a well-wisher. A mentor is however a much deeper concept than occasional advice.
A mentor is someone who accepts the responsibility of guiding the founders in their journey as entrepreneurs. He/she should have a high level of commitment too towards your success.
What is the role of a mentor
A mentor’s role is to provide perspective on the direction that the venture may take, and this means that the mentor should not just give opinion on what he/she feels is right, but should see the venture in the context of the individual mentee’s circumstances and then help the mentee take necessary decisions.
A mentor should not enforce his/her views but provide the inputs that will help the mentee take a better-informed decisions.
Apart from strategy and help in decision making, a mentor could also help in the following areas:
- Helping create a business case and business plan – in this, the biggest inputs would be to help the mentee (usually a first-time entrepreneur) understand the complexities of business, the various cost structure, the time taken by companies to stabilize (usually entrepreneurs underestimate the time taken to establish the venture in the marketplace)
- Helping with warm introductions to potential customers, potential employees, potential partners, or even investors
- Providing support during tough times – entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey. And often, the challenges faced can pull a person down. In such times, a mentor can play a crucial role in keeping the motivation level up, reassuring the entrepreneur that the challenges are part of every journey, giving the comfort that his/her support is available, etc.
- Helping take tough calls – including sometimes shutting down or doing a pivot…
- Interviewing senior employees (this is especially useful when young entrepreneurs have to hire someone older and experienced)
Common mistakes to avoid as mentees
- Don’t go just for big name individuals (unless they fulfill the criteria outlined above).
- Distinguish between an advisor a consultant and a mentor
- Assess whether the expert you want to get as a mentor can accept different points of views
- Most important: Do not get a mentor just to hear more validation of your ideas and assumptions. Get a mentor only if you are willing to be challenged on your ideas and plans. (I notice some entrepreneurs just seek reaffirmation of their beliefs, and if that is not the case, they can be quite dismissive of the mentor).
Each mentor mentee relationship is unique, and it will be good to hear form you what your experiences with your mentors were.