Shana Hocking‘s Forbes article How to Cultivate Great Mentor Relationships and Grow Your Career, while focused on career mentoring, is quite applicable to the mentoring of founders as well.
As usual in annotating articles of this type, I’ll keep the outline of steps recommended but add my comments to each step. So make sure to read the original article if this subject is of interest to you.
What are you looking for from a mentor?
We need to manage expectations here. Mentors are generally ok with giving advice, feedback and guidance based on their experience and expertise. Thus mentors make great sounding boards – but it’s up the mentee to make the sounds. Where mentors may differ is in the willingness or ability to make connections. As I was told by one mentor when asking for a connection to a well-known founder “Keep in mind I have only so many arrows in my quiver.” Mentors want to be sure there is something in it for their connection as well as for the mentee. Another subject you need to clarify with any mentor is their interest in helping you with fundraising. On the rare occasions when I am mentoring a startup that is fund-raising ready – team, prototype, customer traction – intersects with the funding interests of a VC I know I will reach out to make an introduction.
Identifying a mentor
If you are fortunate enough to be affiliated with an institution like MIT there are multiple programs that also offer mentoring. If you only want mentoring you would choose the Venture Mentoring Service, but if you are looking for a financial grant, you would try The MIT Sandbox Fund, which also provides mentoring. But if your college or university doesn’t offer mentoring to its alumni you will need search your network, and spend a lot of time at networking events. But first know what you are looking for. The most important discriminator is do you need domain expertise or not. What I find is that most early stage startups have similar business issues and a generalist like myself can usually be helpful. But once a venture gets traction it’ need for advice and feedback often gets specific to it’s market. So that’s why I never volunteer for medical device or bio-engineering mentoring engagements – I have less than zero knowledge of those fields. Be sure to ask your colleagues and fellow founders if they have a mentor or mentors and how they found them.
Asking for the meeting
As with investors, warm introductions are by far the best. Cold contacting a mentor may waste your time unless you have some strong common ground, such as both graduating from the same school and majoring in the same subject while working in the same market. But the most important thing to have when asking for the meeting is to offer something of interest to the mentor. Be sure to read my post How to get meetings with people too busy to see you: do your homework! Any good mentor is going to be busy and in demand. But all good mentors are curious people, so have something that piques their curiosity. Not what makes you new, but what makes you different and interesting.
Cultivating an excellent mentoring relationship
Establish guidelines with your mentor
This is an easy one, as established mentors will have established guidelines. So it’s up to you to make sure you understand those guidelines – such as “I can only meet at night or on weekends” and abide by them.
Prepare for your mentoring sessions
This is an important step and one that I don’t always see in articles like this one. Prepare an agenda in advance and email it to your mentor. Make sure you know in your own mind what questions you need answers to or what decisions or activities you are looking for feedback on.
Add value to your mentoring relationship
This is important! While many of us mentor to “pay it forward” or “give back” mentors like myself also like to learn something as well. Here’s I’ll directly quote Shana Hocking’s solid advice:
Mentoring is a partnership and mentors can get as much from the relationship as they give. Is there a skill you can teach, generational insights you can share or industry perspective you can bring? Oftentimes mentors find the most joy in just being a part of your professional development.
Keep in contact with mentors
One of my frustrations with mentoring is when I give advice or offer feedback on an upcoming event, such as an investor meeting or demo day, and don’t hear back on how it went. Don’t do this to your mentors! We are invested in your success! Make sure you don’t just contact your mentors when you need help, we like hearing success stories as well.
Consider peer mentoring
Again, this is something most authors who write about mentoring don’t cover. I was flattered to have one of my fellow mentors ask me to mentor him. We’d participated in a few mentoring sessions together – MIT’s VMS features team mentoring – so we knew each other a bit. If you don’t read any other part of the article read this section and keep it in mind, especially if you are having trouble finding a seasoned entrepreneur as a mentor.