5 best practices on Mentorship

Mentor-mentee: a mutually beneficial relationship… when not tarnished by mentor fatigue!

“When you do locate a good mentor, he will serve as an example, a sounding board and, ultimately, a friend. Done well, mentorship is rewarding for both of you. It’s important to nurture the relationship, so find fun ways to meet regularly, even without a business agenda.” (Guide to Finding a Mentor, Richard Branson)

Meeting the right mentor at the right moment can dramatically change the course of a company! In 2014, Otosense CEO Sebastien Christian is introduced to Bruce Graham as he is looking for business angels in the U.S. Four years later, Otosense is acquired by Analog Device. Along the way Bruce and Sebastien have developed a trusting and mutually-beneficial mentor-mentee relationship and Bruce has become an active element of the team. 

Mentoring is a core element of the Silicon Valley ecosystem and entrepreneurship at large. While consultants are paid upon time spent (hourly/daily fee) or results (success fee) based on scope of work, and advisors share the risk by taking equity, mentors offer their time and wisdom for free. As in contrast with coaching which is mostly skills- and tasks-oriented, short-term and performance driven, mentoring aims at building a long term relationship around the development of the individual. That is why respect and nurturing are vital to successful mentorship.

Mentor Fatigue

However, as more and more accelerators and entrepreneurial programs rely on the benevolence of mentors, panelists and jury members to share their experience, knowledge and feedback, a new phenomenon is rising: Mentor fatigue. Fatigue from the mentors who are overwhelmed and over-solicited. Fatigue from the ecosystem and the audience who witness a lack of renewal and diversity. 

On the mentor side, event organizers tend to choose efficiency over relevance – reuse speakers from previous pitching competitions instead of searching for new talents. 

On the mentee side, some entrepreneurs are so much in a “reaching-the-top” perspective, that they are clumsy at connecting with potential supporters and forget to follow-up, update or even thank the people who helped them along the way. 

Without mentioning the ego of certain mentors who prefer to collect jury and panel badges instead of sharing visibility opportunities with their teams and helping a new generation of mentors rise.

All this leads to a general mentor fatigue and laisser-aller in the quality of entrepreneur mentorship. 

Lessons on Mentoring 

One must not forget that mentorship is a relationship like any other. It requires civility, nurturing and reciprocity in order to be truly fruitful. So here are my two (five?) cents:

1. Do not only rely on attractive entrepreneur programs to spot the overly buzzed mentors and their canned responses, but go do the homework yourself and pinpoint those you really would like to learn from and who are in the best position to help you. Dive in LinkedIn connections and groups, and attend meaningful social events in your area of expertise and business – Eventbrite and Meetup usually help. Do not be scared of inquiring younger people. You can actually learn quite a lot on new trends, practices and behaviors by listening to what the youth has to say!

2. Ask for advice, ask for coffee (and pay for it)! Do not blatantly ask people for introductions, as you could miss the most important – hearing their personal experience and feedback on your projects. Asking someone you haven’t met and interacted with for an introduction via a cold email or copy-pasted LinkedIn message is a red flag to the recipient. Plus the quality of the introductions they could make is often linked to their good understanding of your product and approach.

3. As your parents might have endlessly repeated, do not forget to say thank you. After a meeting or a lunch, send a short thank you email. In later followup notes, you can also share an update on your actions or specific introductions made. Thank everyone who paved your way, even the most junior people you met if they ran the extra mile for you. If you are not convinced by the civility argument, at least project that each person you meet today in one position will move positions sometime soon – this happens pretty fast in the Bay Area! – and eventually end up working for a tech giant or become a customer, partner, colleague, or even neighbor!

4. Mentoring is an organic relationship. By essence, people sole meaning in life is not to help you – they have their own agenda -, but some decide to do it willingly. Do not forget that they choose to do it because they trust you. You have to create a relationship and regularly check how you can reciprocate. Sometimes it means helping their daughter to find a soccer coach! To help with this, we suggest keeping track of your interactions with your mentors and remembering their own pain points and sweet spots.

5. Most of all, never forget how you’ve been helped one day and pay it forward to the community, to younger entrepreneurs, to school alumni, to country fellows. Documenting your learnings, conducting mentoring sessions yourself and giving masterclasses takes a lot of time, but is definitely worth it. You will be astonished to discover that the joy of giving back equates the benefits of receiving help! As Winston Churchill used to say: “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Now let’s hear what master mentors have to say about this and review our mentoring classics!

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

“A startling number of women introduce themselves and in the same breath, ask me to be their mentor. I cannot recall a single man asking me to do the same (although men have asked me to mentor their wives or girlfriends).”

“I have seen lower-level employees nimbly grab a moment after a meeting or in the gall to ask for advice from a respected and busy senior person. The exchange is casual and quick. After taking that advice, the would-be mentee follows up to offer thanks and then uses that opportunity to ask for more guidance. Without even realizing it, the senior person becomes involved and invested in the junior person’s career. The word “mentor” never needs to be uttered. The relationship is more important than the label.”

“I invested a lot of time in her development. So I was surprised one day when she stated flatly that she had “never had a mentor or anyone really looking out” for her. I asked what a mentor meant to her. She explained that it would be someone she spoke to for at least an hour every week. I smiled, thinking, That’s not a mentor -that’s a therapist.”

“Few mentors have time for excessive hand-holding. Most are dealing with their own high-stress jobs. A mentee who is positive and prepared can be a bright spot in a day. For this same reason, mentees should avoid complaining excessively to a mentor. Using a mentor’s time to validate feelings may help psychologically, but it’s better to focus on specific problems with real solutions.”

“A senior man and junior man at a bar is seen as mentoring.. A senior man and a junior woman at a bar can also be mentoring…but it looks like dating. This interpretation holds women back and creates a double bind. If women try to cultivate a close relationship with a male sponsor, they risk being the target of workplace gossip. If women try to get to the top without a sponsor’s help; their career will often stall.”

“He had a “breakfast or lunch only policy” with employees because he felt uncomfortable going out to dinner with female employees and wanted to make access equal. (…) Others may adopt a dinner-with-anyone policy. In either case, we need practices that can be applied evenly.

Peers can also mentor and sponsor one another. (…) Peers are also in the trenches and may understand problems that superiors do not, especially when those problems are generated by superiors in the first place.”

Richard Branson, Guide to Finding a Mentor

“Every entrepreneur needs a good mentor. Someone, somewhere, has already been through what you are experiencing right now, and he has come out the other side armed with invaluable insights. The difference between a budding entrepreneur who merely shows promise and one who is already enjoying some success often comes down to mentoring. Good advice can be just as crucial as funding in the early stages of an enterprise.”

“The need for a mentor is obvious, yet seeking one out can be quite difficult and daunting. How do you find the right person?”

“Often, you have to do some research. Try going to industry events like lunches, seminars, talks and conferences. Join community groups –your local chamber of commerce is a great place to start. Chambers of commerce often host networking events and meetings that bring beginning entrepreneurs and successful businesspeople together. Talk to people, listen to their stories and pursue further meetings with those whom you can learn from.”

“Another great place to find a potential mentor’s name is online. Look for sector–or industry-specific events and groups on Facebook; subscribe to useful newsletters; follow interesting or relevant individuals from your region on Twitter or LinkedIn; then get in touch and ask questions –just like you can with me.”

“Be sure that you choose someone who has experience and connections within your area and level of business. Focus on finding someone who has started a venture that’s similar to yours, and who understands the trials and tribulations of building a business in that area.”

“Keep in mind that an adviser who offers his time in return for compensation is not the same thing as a mentor. While advisers and consultants can be very helpful, true mentors are effective partly because they are only interested in helping others succeed.”

“If you don’t yet have someone in mind who might fit the bill, make a list of successful people in your community. Is there someone on that list whom you admire and respect? Ask her to lunch, to coffee, or simply ask for 30 minutes of her time to chat.”

“When you do decide to approach someone, make sure that you don’t go in blind – know what you want to ask. Explain what excites you about your service or product, be honest about your fears, and ask for feedback.”

“It is rarely a good idea to make a hard and formal request for mentoring upfront, like “Will you be my mentor?” Such relationships blossom on their own. A mentor-mentee relationship takes time to grow, so start by asking for simple advice on one project or problem…”

“When you do locate a good mentor, he will serve as an example, a sounding board and, ultimately, a friend. Done well, mentorship is rewarding for both of you. It’s important to nurture the relationship, so find fun ways to meet regularly, even without a business agenda.”

“If you are in a position to share the skills you have learned, you should give back by becoming a mentor yourself. Finding success is hard work, and entrepreneurs could use a little help along the way. As the American businessman Zig Ziglaronce said: “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.” So get out there and find the right mentor to help you along the path to success.”

Deborah Perry Piscione, Secrets of Silicon Valley

“I didn’t know anything about Silicon Valley. I had never been there before, although I had always hoped to one day live in San Francisco, as it seemed to offer the optimum balance of culture, elegance, and nature. (…) I was amazed at how many people responded, and all seemed to ask in some way, “Welcome… How can I help you?”

“When you come to Silicon Valley from anywhere else, you not only adapt quickly to the abundant sunshine, but you also have to quickly adapt to the culture, the lifestyle, and the openness of the people and the landscape. There is a shared set of attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes Silicon Valley that is different from any place.(…) Elements of competitiveness certainly emerge, but you can easily disengage yourself from that sort of tension, unlike in the business climates of Washington or New York. Silicon Valley is filled with people who embrace a laid-back lifestyle, manifested in casual office dress and a disdain for hierarchical communication models. They take themselves and their jobs seriously, but they are able to maintain a refreshing sense of individuality and purpose.”

“It took a while to acclimate to these affable people who actually talk to one another, and even seem to look out for each other. (…) In Silicon Valley, people everywhere would talk to me: at the grocery store, in the bank, at the dry cleaner. (…) It was hard to trust – people would randomly talk to us and seem to be genuinely interested in what we had to say. People would ask me, “Who would you like to meet?” (And they were referring to leading venture capitalists and high-profile executives.)”

“Often people with that kind of passion become absorbed – even borderline obsessed – with that passion. Yet despite that inner drive, they also smile for no reason, say “hello” on the streets to one another, and evoke a shared “help thy neighbor” virtue.”

If you have been inspired by our article and lessons from master mentors, time to apply those recommendations and give back vitality to the mentor-mentee relationship! And don’t hesitate to share with us your beautiful mentorship stories.