What is Mentorship?
My colleagues at FounderCorps have worked diligently to define what Mentorship is, and how we want to work with entrepreneur mentees. This post summarizes and paraphrases some of the highlights from Jonathan Aberman’s post on the FounderCorps Mentorship Best Practice page.
The mentor/mentee relationship is a unique and personal relationship, which transcends a mere advisor or board relationship. It is one of the most rewarding things people can be involved in outside of their family relationships. Mentorship doesn’t happen by accident. Both the mentor and the mentee have their parts to play in a successful mentor/mentee relationship.
A “mentor” is a person with professional and life experience that can be shared to help others learn and develop. The mentor is willing to share these experiences in a manner that the mentee can react to and understand. While there may be commercial aspects to a mentor’s engagement, at its best the advice and help that is offered is provided freely and without expectation of immediate reward.
A mentee is willing to be engaged and respectful of the mentor’s time and should understand that the best mentors are not motivated by money but by personal satisfaction.
Mentorship is not merely advice. It is a bilateral commitment between two people, based upon mutual trust and a commitment. The commitment of the mentor is to provide advice and help to the mentee with the mentee’s best interests in mind. The commitment of the mentee is to be ready to listen to the advice and take the help and act upon it. The currency of the mentor/mentee relationship is personal satisfaction and shared accomplishment.
Is Mentorship the Same Thing as Providing Advice?
A mentor/mentee relationship often is centered upon the giving of advice; however, a mentor/mentee relationship is more than merely providing advice; it is a bi-lateral relationship where the mentor and the mentee both work with and benefit from the other. There is a very important aspect of shared mission that exists at the core of a mentor/mentee relationship. A mentor doesn’t merely provide war stories or open ended advice. Instead, a mentor provides advice in context with the best interests of the mentee in mind.
Mentorship Must be Free of Conflict
Conflict in itself is neutral – it is merely a lack of congruence between the best interests of the person giving advice, the person getting the advice, and the organization (if any) through which the advice is given. The conflict does not mean that the various parts of the relationship are destined to fail, or that the conflict cannot be resolved in a way that serves the best interests of all. In an ideal situation, any conflict should be identified and discussed. We believe that in any advisor/advisee relationship conflicts should be identified and acknowledged. This does not defeat the possibility of a successful mentorship, and results in an honest relationship where parties will know which best interests will ultimately control.
The mentor/mentee relationship should usually be free of conflict. The best interests of the mentee should be tantamount. Following from this is an expectation that the mentor is not exposed to liability or financial obligation. The best mentor/mentee relationship is based upon advice and support freely given and freely ignored.
What Supports a Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationship?
The currency of a successful mentor/mentee relationship is personal satisfaction. It is not a commercial relationship, and relies upon participants deriving psychic benefits.
How Does the Mentor/Mentee Relationship Begin?
Mentorship can arise out of formal relationships; however they cannot be created formally. Directors, Advisory Board members, and supervisors may offer advice, but they are not mentors. The mentor/mentee relationship arises informally through positive association over a period of time. Its success requires a personal relationship, based upon trust. This allows it to be more useful for the mentee, but also more difficult to obtain. As is the case of any personal relationship, consistency and integrity over an extended period are usually required to establish the deep connection of a mentor/mentee relationship.
Does That Mean Mentor/Mentee Relationships Should Always Be Informal?
The mentor/mentee relationship has to work for both parties. This often means that the best relationships are those that have clarity of expectations, for example, time commitment per month or time period. Both parties should acknowledge that most mentor/mentee relationships have an end point, where they do not work for one or the other. Therefore, the best mentor/mentee relationships often arise out of a formal interaction, for example, assisting in a business plan competition. Or, around a specific time period. In the absence of a formal initial structure, mentors/mentees should include in their interactions a regular check-in discussion, to make sure that both are getting the positive benefits they need for it to be a rewarding relationship. Expectations and motivations need to be understood and acknowledged at all times.
What is the Best Way to Find a Mentor?
Mentorship can’t occur until the mentee is ready for a mentor’s assistance. Mentors are best found through a variety of ways including personal networking, positive interactions in a formal advisory setting, and via an introduction from a trusted referral source. Formal vetting programs, like an advisory program operated by a University or community group are great ways to find mentors. Professional service providers are also a potential good source of mentors, because of their deep relationships with many experienced people who could be suitable mentors.
What Are the Most Important Attributes of a Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationship?
The most successful mentor/mentee relationships have many of these characteristics.
- Understanding of each other’s “winning strategy.” In order for mentors and mentees to communicate well they must appreciate how the other deals with challenges, and speak to each other in a way that the other can hear. Mentors/mentees don’t have to have the same winning strategy, but when they don’t match up there is a need for a higher level of sensitivity and care.
- Both mentor and mentee have to be coachable. Both parties must be self-aware and able to take criticism and modify their behavior. Without coachability you don’t have a real exchange of information and a shared experience – you have one-directional communication.
- Both are respectful of time commitments. It’s not always convenient from a work-life balance perspective to be a mentor or mentee. It’s essential that each party be flexible whenever possible, and tries to limit emergencies to real emergencies.
- Both must act on information received. Each party must listen to the other and demonstrate through conduct some sort of acknowledgment. A good mentor does not need to have her advice followed, but if a mentee continually ignores advice and thoughts without discussing why, he runs the risk of creating for the mentor the sense that she is wasting her time. For the mentor, not listening to the mentee and modifying advice or how it’s delivered, creates for the mentee a sense that the mentor isn’t really interested in a bilateral relationship.
- There must be honesty and transparency. The best mentor/mentee relationships are valuable because there is a real exchange of viewpoints and feedback. This can’t happen if critical facts are omitted, or words are measured to protect feelings.
- Mentors must be willing to provide substantial benefits. Mentees look for mentors to provide support, empathy and contacts. They should also look to their mentors to provide an external monitoring process of the mentee’s progression against the shared goals identified by the mentor/mentee.
- Mentees must not embarrass or abuse their mentor’s trust. Mentees should ensure that any introduction or other extension of assistance by the mentor is treated with respect and that there is follow through. There needs to be an appreciation that when a mentor acts to assist a mentee by making introductions or otherwise using his own influence, there is a reputational risk to the mentor if the mentee does not perform.
- There must be discretion. Along with honesty, keeping confidences is essential, since personal information and feelings are shared. The more comfortable the participants are in sharing sensitive information, the more valuable and lasting the mentor/mentee relationship.
- Each party must be open to having the relationship change over time. As in any other personal relationship, the mentor/mentee relationship evolves. Many relationships are situational, or are relevant for a limited time period. Also, at times one party “outgrows” the other. “Breaking up” with a mentor/mentee can be emotionally difficult. It’s essential to be professional when the relationship is no longer satisfying to one party or the other.
- A mentor/mentee relationship is not a family relationship. A mistake that many mentor/mentees make is to analogize their relationship to a family relationship, like a big sister or uncle. But mentors/mentees are not your relatives. They are people who are in a mutually beneficial relationship, based upon positive psychic rewards. You should never take a mentor/mentee for granted.