Mentors are among the most powerful resources available to new startup founders, innovators and emerging leaders. As Dave Mandel, serial entrepreneur and EIR at Techstars said,
We all go through life thinking we can figure it out. And if we can’t figure it out, we aren’t as smart as the next guy. But the truth is, you need a good support system. You need good people around you to help you figure things out… people who care about you.
You just can’t know it all. As the old saying goes, it truly takes a village. And in a relatively short amount of time, an experienced mentor can save you months of frustration and wasted effort. But that doesn’t mean anyone willing to be you mentor should be. Lots of people, once they “make it,” love to volunteer. That’s a very good thing for less experienced folks still working their way through a career. Just because someone volunteers (or agrees) to help you, however, doesn’t mean they can offer what you need.
As an entrepreneur, any mentor relationship you pursue and take time to cultivate must be additive to your needs, otherwise, it’s a waste of time and energy. You won’t enjoy it, and your mentor won’t, either. So don’t be afraid to be picky, and guard your time. Seek out mentors with as many of these traits as possible, to find the best possible match for you.
Experience doesn’t mean much if it isn’t highly applicable to you, your industry, business model, technology or local market. Often, you can learn a great deal from someone who has had success in a very different space, but not all lessons-learned are easily transferrable. If you’re doing something truly innovative, chances are, few if any people have actually “been there, done that” in your case, so think about how a team of mentors can complement your own experience and insights. Who can fill in your gaps?
And be careful not to confuse what is relevant with what is not. Small business growth advice is not the same as high-growth startup advice. Product development is not the same as go-to-market strategy. Good mentors will know the difference, but ultimately, you’re the one having to filter and categorize the input you receive.
Relevance has an expiration date, and it’s getting closer all the time. The faster things move, the more recent your mentors’ experience needs to be. Are they working on a project right now? Actively investing in or otherwise supporting others and staying tuned in to the industry? Of course, you may find great benefit from a mentor who’s been out of the game for 20 years because some good advice is timeless and perspective matters. Seeking recency is not a comment about age in any way, rather current situational awareness.
Did they make things happen fast? How? Speed is an ethic, a worldview and a skill set. Some see speed as haste or recklessness. In the world of innovation, it’s a way to limit waste and gain advantage. People who do not default toward speed are unlikely to have a lot to contribute to an agile startup environment. Speed is not the same as cutting corners; it’s the constant search to do more with less, remove barriers and escalate the rate of change. It’s preparing for the future without waiting for it. Those who do understand what it means to move quickly will tend to talk about what you can do today, this week and this month, vs. this quarter or this year.
Slow and steady promotion through the corporate ladder may not indicate results, so much as commitment. Experience and a track record of execution matter, sure– corporate leaders tend to have a host of skills and experience startup founders are wholly lacking– but people who have gotten the kind of results that are applicable to you don’t always have the titles to go with it. Highly successful people do suffer setbacks; it’s to be expected. You can’t be considered pushing the envelop if you never fall down. The issue is, what has this person gotten done when others couldn’t?
A results-oriented person is not going to applaud your effort as much as focus you on the effects of your actions. Almost every day I hear about entrepreneurs needing encouragement. They don’t. Encouragement is dangerous. They need it’s antidote: a relentless pursuit of evidence. People who get results understand that. They aren’t going to believe in your one big idea, they are going to help you be successful as an innovator, whatever that looks like.
Warm introductions to others who can help– that’s leverage. No good mentor is going to believe he or she has all the answers, but they will have ideas about who to call. Expect no mentor to open the rolodex on a whim, however. You’ve got to earn the right to access any of their contacts, and that comes with respecting their time and input. While trolling through a mentor’s LinkedIn profile for good contacts may be considered active networking, don’t put your mentor in an awkward spot by assuming their connections are now your connections.
Do you get along? Do you want to spend time with this person? When things get hard, will the two of you have the rapport to talk openly and honestly? It’s a bonus if you can find common ground beyond your business challenges. The goal is not to be friends, but that’s not necessarily a problem, either, so long as your mentors represent a diverse bunch who help to stretch your thinking, rather than confirm every opinion.
Resilient and supportive relationships are important for anyone struggling with a hard problem, like entrepreneurs do most days. Strong rapport with a mentor who is there to listen, even on your worst days, can provide value like nothing else. So when it comes time for them to kick you in the pants, you’ll thank them for it. 😉
These six ingredients make for a tall order and few mentors will possess them all. That’s OK. By targeting people with more of these traits, you’ll be sure to find the kinds of mentors who can help. And when you do, it’s your job to manage them effectively, for maximum impact.