The Dos and Don’ts of Mentoring


coffeeWhile the Forbes article by Ian Altman entitled The Dos and Don’ts of Mentoring is aimed at career mentoring within corporation, all of the author’s points apply equally well to mentoring of founders of startups.

So I’ll reiterate his major points, while tailoring the detail to entrepreneurs instead of corporate employees and the executives who may mentor them.

Do Create Structure

Structure is one of the key success factors of MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service, which was founded in 2000 and has been immensely successful by any measure. Clearly defining the tules of engagement between mentors and mentees is necessary but not sufficient. What is also needed is rigorous process. The process for enrolling founders, vetting and training mentors, maintaining best practices, all this and more is taught by the MIT VMS Outreach Team, which has trained 75 academic, economic development groups, and other organizations in how to set up their own venture mentoring service. Any organization interested in doing so would be well served by availing itself of the Outreach Team’s training services. I was honored to be added to the Outreach Team early this year. Training other organizations on the ins and out of mentoring is a fascinating process.

Don’t Be The Hero

The article has a great quote from author and master coach Michael Bungay Stanier:
The best coaches ask more, and do less. While it can be very tempting to jump in with a solution to a founder’s problem, particularly one you’ve had and solved yourself, the key element of mentoring is enabling mentor to discover their own solutions, with the guidance and help of their mentors.

Mr. Stanier adds another best practice, used at VMS:

At the end of an interaction, rather than rushing into the next thing, just take a moment and say, ‘Look, before you go, let me ask you: what was the most useful or most valuable here for you?’

Team mentoring really helps to eliminate this problem. When you are flying solo you may be tempted to provide an answer, but when part of a team you are more prone to ask a question, albeit perhaps a leading one.

Be Coachable

The great thing about several mentoring programs I’ve been part of is that the founders are self-selected for being coachable. They know that the program is focused on mentoring, even if there are small grants to teams, and that if they are not open to be mentored they don’t seem to apply. So I almost never run into a founder who isn’t open to be coached or mentored.

What has impressed me so much about the many founders I’ve mentored is that they are not defensive. Sometimes they get a barrage of negative feedback from their mentors, but virtually all of them. listen carefully, ask follow up questions and don’t try to defend their position or decision.

There are other posts on Mentorphile on how to be a good mentor or mentee, including  Being mentored – a woman’s perspective – Part II  and the post Great article about Paul English on mentoring and being mentored.

The bottomline is that mentoring is becoming increasingly widespread both within corporations and inside the entrepreneurial ecosystem.  As it grows, there’s a need to collect and codify best practices. Mentorphile performs the former, the latter will be a future project.




Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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