A successful entrepreneur and advisor once said to me that some mentors can be “actively harmful” to their mentees. In this specific case, he was referring to a mentor who had been successful in the software industry but was so long removed from any operational or leadership roles that he no longer was current with the new business models.
While I believe that most mentors and mentor programs are not trying to damage their mentees, I think that immigrant or underrepresented founders can do a few things to ensure that their mentor relationship is productive and not dysfunctional.
1. Define what you’re looking for
As Tony Tran, CEO and co-founder of Lumanu says “having a defined ‘ask’ helps you set clear parameters for the relationship, including knowing when it’s time to end or dial it down.”
Know the ask for your mentor so that you can reach your goals. The necessary skill sets and experience can vary greatly depending on the stage of your business, such as ideation, planning, execution, scaling, or growth, and your personal strengths. They can also differ if you’ve got shorter-term vs. longer-term goals. So ask yourself, do I need:
- Functional experience: marketing, sales, software development, finance/fundraising, product development, legal, human resources, recruitment, etc.
- General startup experience: founder, early team member, investor, etc.
- Business model experience: freemium, SaSS, transactional, subscription, pay-per-use, ads/sponsorship.
- Industry experience: manufacturing, software, hardware, energy, agriculture, biotechnology, healthcare, retail, food and beverage, etc.
- Leadership experience: relationship building, negotiation, innovation, conflict management, decision-making, etc.
A quality mentor can, and should, help you through some kind of goal-setting framework. I’m a fan of S.M.A.R.T goals (If you’re unfamiliar, the acronym stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.) However, trying to have some goals reasonably defined while you search for a mentor and before your first meeting is helpful.
I’ve had more than a few mentors asked to be matched with a new mentee because the entrepreneur could not clearly articulate what they needed help with and the mentor felt like their time could be better spent elsewhere. Wisely use the few hours each month that a mentor gives you. Everyone is busy, don’t waste their time by coming unprepared.
2. Ask why they mentor
I recently came upon a platform that plugged a vetted network of mentors, but one of the benefits listed for joining their network was getting “project referrals.” The good news is the platform doesn’t take a fee if the mentor gets work out of it, but still, this didn’t sit well with me. There should be a clear line between a mentor relationship and a business relationship. There’s no reason to pay for a mentor or, even worse, subject yourself to being solicited by a mentor.
According to TechStar’s David Cohen and Brad Feld, “In the startup world, Give First means simply trying to help anyone, especially entrepreneurs, without any expectation of getting anything back.” If it feels like a mentor or mentor program is acting as a front for getting consulting or other business opportunities, and not a genuine opportunity to give back, then tread carefully.
Also, check in with yourself to make sure you’re working with your mentor for the right reasons. Mentors are not there to do the work for you. They should guide, coach, and provide you with useful resources in your journey. They are sounding boards and should not be treated like unpaid consultants.
3. Be committed to a two-way relationship
I’ve heard more than one entrepreneur say they turned to entrepreneurship because they were terrible employees. (I love this Quora string that shares some of the reasons why.) Unfortunately, some of the traits mentioned (impatience, problem with authority) also make some entrepreneurs horrible mentees.
The reality is that an entrepreneur who lives in an echo chamber won’t get very far. In fact, according to SCORE, a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration, entrepreneurs who work with a mentor report higher revenues and increased business growth.
A successful mentor relationship, just like any relationship, should start with personal chemistry. Case in point, at the eForum we used to match entrepreneurs with mentors based solely on applications, but it didn’t always work. So at one point, we added a meet and greet so that both entrepreneurs and mentors could get to know each other and tell us who they’d like to work with.
More often than not, the people I thought would be great matches on paper didn’t even write each other’s names down. Most said they began talking with a prospective mentor about something that wasn’t asked on the application and they clicked. There was an eerie similarity between online dating profiles and actual, real-life dates in this case. Personal chemistry matters!
Take the time to get to know your mentor on both a personal and professional level. Share what’s going on at work and in your life. Build trust. Expect that a mentor will give advice that you won’t always like or agree with, but trust that they have your best interest at heart. A good mentor should ask you a lot of questions and listen intently. You should do the same. All relationships are a two-way street.
About Katja Wald:
Katja Wald is an expert in coaching and mentoring programs for entrepreneurs. She is a self–directed leader with experience in the Boston-area startup support ecosystem and in operational marketing. Wald led the eForum (formerly known as the MIT Enterprise Forum Cambridge) as Executive Director until 2019. The eForum is an independent nonprofit organization, providing practical programs for startup founders since 1978. Most recently Katja was Director of B2B Marketing at DeleteMe, a scaling personal data removal startup. She also worked for Garage.com (now Pegasus Tech Ventures) and MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.