What makes a good mentor/mentee relationship?
Since Mentor first appeared in Homer's Odyssey, we have been exploring and developing the relationship between a mentor and a mentee. For almost everyone reading this blog, there will be one person, whether a teacher, a friend or someone in business, who has given you a vital leg up at one stage in your life and without whom you would not have done so well.
At the New Entrepreneurs Foundation we think it is so important to provide that mentoring role that we have launching a mentoring panel for the first time. Our call for mentors has eliciting a fantastic response from entrepreneurs and business people from all sectors who have volunteered their time, experience and skills. One of their universal reasons for signing up was a desire to give something back and the acknowledgement that they all had someone who made a big difference when they were starting out.
But having a willing mentor and a willing mentee doesn't necessarily mean you have a match made in heaven and that the end result will be as you hoped. There are certain aspects of the relationship that need careful consideration.
From my own experiences of being a mentor and working with both young entrepreneurs and mentors, I think there are certain qualities which make you a good mentor.
Firstly you need to have an open mind and a desire to help without any expectation or financial gain. Mentors are generally not paid. This is an entirely voluntary enterprise so you really must want to do it.
They also need in-depth experience in a business sector, like technology, retail or finance, or a profound knowledge of a particular skill like marketing, legal, e-commerce or technical know-how. Many of the NEF mentors have both but having at least one is essential.
Mentors need to be well connected and able to make introductions, and also need to be good and patient listeners. A good listener is generally able to see beyond what their mentee is telling them and can identify the real challenges quickly.
They need to have enthusiasm and a desire to have a long term connection with the mentee. Speed mentoring has become quite common in the UK, and we are trying a variation on that for our first mentoring programme. Our sessions were set up so that each mentee saw a number of mentors in a day and each mentor helped at least three mentees. Some mentors saw many more mentees. We're monitoring how mentors and mentees found this approach so the jury is still out about the usefulness of this approach.
Availability is crucial too. Mentors need to be prepared to make time for their mentee or they shouldn't really take on the role. Early stage founders need a lot of help and advice and you will be called on frequently
You should really think about your role and relationship with your mentee. I mentor several young people in early stage start ups and I am constantly asking myself whether I am adding value to the founder and the business, and whether I should be doing more, less or something different.
What about the Mentee? Let's not forget them! The onus is not all on the mentor by any means. It is a partnership and to work successfully, the mentee has to play their part every bit as effectively as the mentor.
So what makes a good mentee? In my view it is somebody who is eager to learn, open to taking advice and really values the mentor's input and time. I was very pleased to hear a young entrepreneur the other day waxing lyrical about the half day mentoring session he had received from a very well known businessman, and speculating on how much half a day of his time was worth, in awed tones.
A good mentee not only appreciates their mentor, but comes prepared with questions and issues to a meeting. They should follow up on the advice they are given too. There is nothing more irritating for a mentor than finding that a mentee hasn't bothered to act on discussed and agreed advice.
Mentees should not be shy about asking for introductions to other people, and following them up. Remember that your mentor is likely to be connected to many more people than you and can open doors for you if they feel that you are serious about your venture.
A good mentee should also understand and respect the nature of the mentor/mentee relationship. It is a business connection and should be treated as such. However, that shouldn't put you off developing a decent relationship and a good mentee should invite mentors to events. So if, as a young entrepreneur, you are pitching ideas to investors or taking part in a competition, inviting your mentor is a really good thing to do.
Keeping in touch is important. One of the things I find really heartening about one of my mentees is how frequently he keeps in touch with me, even if I haven't seen him for a while. I'll get an email, even if it's short, at least once every couple of weeks to let me know what is happening. That's really useful because a mentor does care what happens and likes to be kept in the loop even at times when you as the mentee don't specifically need their help and advice.
My most influential mentor came in the middle stage of my career. She was a senior board director in the company (a FTSE 100 company) and I was a fairly junior manager in a different department. I didn't report to her and my team was outside her remit. It was invaluable to have someone with that level of seniority and expertise helping me to navigate the politics of the very large and complex company and to be able to advise me on so many aspects of my career at that stage. I believe that her input was fundamental to the way I approached subsequent jobs. Many years later she invited me to join her new start-up venture as CEO. Our professional relationship has continued over many years and we still meet up from time to time to catch up and exchange ideas.
It is in large part through my personal experiences that I think mentoring is so important for our young entrepreneurs. Starting your first business is a very lonely experience and knowing that you have got somebody with experience and connections you can call on is a huge bonus and benefit which shouldn't be underestimated.