Tim Denning lists six skills that you need to be a mentor in his article How To Be A World-Class Mentor To Others. He’s learned these on the job, whereas I’ve had the advantage of being trained by MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service over the past eight years.
Here are his six skills with my comments. Read the full article to see his explanation of each skill.
1. Help them find what’s missing
What I find missing are two things: focus and direction. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, startups have 360 degrees of freedom and that’s about 350 too many. Many of the very early stage founders I mentor have an idea but either lack focus on who the customer is or lack knowledge on how to acquire customers or both. As I tell my mentees, if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there. So I unlike Tim Denning, don’t find that founders lack either purpose or passion. They almost always have both. The issue is channel that passion and purpose to turn an idea into a real business.
2. Inspire your mentee to a new level
I don’t find that my founders need inspiration. In fact they inspire me! That’s one of the joys of working with founders. However, I do agree with Tim Denning that “the road is long and treacherous” and it is the role of the mentor to help founders realize that and help the over the many bumps, ruts, and forks along that road. In other word we offer guidance, not inspiration.
3. Challenge them
I find this to be necessary but not in the way Mr. Denning does. I find founders need to be challenged to focus on the demand side of the business equation, on customers. Virtually every founder I’ve every met is focused on the supply side, or their product or service. This isn’t surprising as virtually all these founders are makers/builders and technologists, not sales people or marketeers. So while they do need to be challenged on their product more often they need to be challenged to get out of the office or the lab and talk to potential customers. What Steve Blank calls “customer development“, the linchpin of any startup. Founders are almost always focused on product development, sometimes on business development, but rarely on customer development.
4. Use leverage
I find this part of the article downright strange! Denning talks about challenging his mentees to do a 5-day fast! What this has to do with entrepreneurship and leverage I have no idea. However, I do use the term leverage quite often. Since I’m mentoring engineers they have no problem understanding the application of this term to business.
5. Intro them to others
As far as I’m concerned this is a nice to have in being a mentor, not a need to have. If I have contacts that are relevant, I share them. In fact I just introduced a mentee to a former employee of mine who now holds a senior position at a large and successful tech company. But I caution mentees not to expect introductions, nor to expect I’m going to help them raise money. As a mentor I provide feedback, guidance and advice, not necessarily intros not help in raising capital.
6. Share your stories
Here’s where I’m in total agreement with Mr. Denning. Stories are powerful and a much more effective tool for educating entrepreneurs than generic, abstract advice. Every story needs a moral, of course. But there’s no doubt that people are hardwired to react to stories so I try to use them wherever relevant.
However, I disagree with Mr. Denning that there are no training guides to mentoring. TechStars has done a great job of writing a number of blog posts on the how-to’s of mentoring. They are highly recommended, starting with The Mentor Manifesto by David Cohen, one of the founders of TechStars.
So while I’m very glad to see a post about mentoring – they are few and far between – I’m not in agreement with a lot Mr. Denning has to say. But his article is worth reading, as there are certainly different views of mentoring and exposure to those different views can only make you a more effective mentor.