My Thoughts on Best Practices for Mentors and Mentees

FounderCorps is getting together this Tuesday night to work on collecting our thoughts on “best practices” for mentorship of entrepreneurs.   I thought that I would take a few moments and collect my thoughts on this topic.  As we head into the fall, FounderCorps already has been asked to provide our entrepreneurial viewpoint to a number of mentor programs.  We’ll publish our collective thoughts soon, but in the meantime, here are my own thoughts on the top ten best practices for mentors and mentees.

Before talking about the top ten best practices, it is important to note the most significant underpinning of the mentor/mentee relationship.  It is fundamentally about psychological connection.  To be effective, the mentor/mentee must share a sense of common purpose and mission.  For the mentor, providing mentorship is more than offering advice – it is sharing the vision and passion of the mentee and providing guidance and care that is tailored to the mentee.  For the mentee it is more than listening — it is providing feedback and being an active participant in an ongoing process of discovery and progress.  Although mentorship means many things to different people, at its core it is an activity that people do for personal satisfaction.  The more satisfying, the more engaged mentors and mentees become.

A successful mentor/mentee relationship is one of the most rewarding things people can be involved in outside of their own family relationships.  But, it doesn’t happen accidentally.  Both the mentor and mentee have a part to play.  With that, here are my initial thoughts on the top ten best practices for a successful mentor/mentee relationship.

  • Understand each other’s “winning strategy”.  One of the interesting things about people is that under stress we tend to go back to the behavior patterns we learned in childhood to get our way.  If you think back to nursery school and the sandbox you can visualize what I mean – the little boy who got his way by bonking people on the head with a shovel is probably today’s screaming CEO.  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.
  • Be coachable.  Both parties in a mentor/mentee relationship 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.
  • Be respectful of time commitments.  Mentor/mentee relationships generally are not professional in nature, and occur as an adjunct to the participants’ day jobs, family responsibilities and hobbies.  It is not always convenient to be a mentor or mentee. Therefore it is essential that each party be flexible whenever possible, and tries to limit emergencies to real emergencies.
  • 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 his advice followed, but if a mentee continually ignores advice and thoughts without discussing why, she  runs the risk of creating for the mentor the sense that he is wasting his 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.
  • Be honest.  Very simple to say, but hard to do.  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.
  • Be discrete.  Along with honesty, keeping confidences is essential.  A successful mentor/mentee relationship is likely to be based upon the sharing of personal information and feelings.  The more comfortable the participants are in sharing sensitive information, the more valuable and lasting the mentor/mentee relationship.
  • Understand that relationships change over time.  As is the case with 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.  However, since most mentor/mentee relationships occur in business, it is essential to be professional and not demeaning when the relationship is no longer satisfying to one party or the other.  The business community is surprisingly small.
  • Mentors are not your family.   Finding a mentor is something that many look for in the business world.  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.  They don’t have to understand if you are having a bad day, or if you have always been nasty around the holidays.
  • You should evaluate professional mentors the same as amateurs.  There are some jobs where people are professional mentors, for example venture investors or executive coaches.  The best mentor/mentee relationships in these circumstances mirror the best practices described above.  For instance, where VC/entrepreneur relationships failure, you often find the basis of the failure in their inability to establish an effective mentor/mentee relationship.

After FounderCorps meets this week I’ll try to collect some of the results from our meeting and post them soon.  It will be interesting to see what my colleagues think is most important when we meet. And, if you have some thoughts please feel free to comment, so that I share your thoughts when we meet.