Let’s look at each as well as adding a couple of others.
1. Don’t make quick assumptions.
One of my standard pieces of business advice to any entrepreneur is try to minimize your assumptions. That goes for mentors as well. For assumptions are just hypotheses, they need data or evidence to either back them up or even disprove them. I’d advise first time mentors not to do anything quickly! As a first time mentor you are climbing the learning curve. Even an experienced mentor had to be careful not to jump to conclusions. A key part of your job as mentor is to learn the key factors about your entrepreneur and their business concept. The 90 minutes or so we get doesn’t provide enough time to learn in depth, so the most important thing is to figure out in that first meeting what are the independent and dependent variables. Today for example we had a really high powered team, very experienced team. But it still took us almost the entire 90 minutes to land to a good hypothesis as to where the entrepreneurs should focus. And their homework became to test that hypothesis.
2. Be gracious.
This goes for all business and personal relationships! If you are gracious its very likely whoever you are mentoring or working with will tend to be gracious as well. Conversely if you are harsh and grating you will likely be treated similarly. So this is what I call generic advice, much like the rule about assumptions. It is not specific to being a mentor, first time or experienced. One thing I emphasize with my mentees is to avoid being generic, you need to be specific!
3. Ask questions.
I’m a big believer in the Socratic method. The best way to learn what the key drivers are of the entrepreneur and their business is by asking the right questions. And then asking the right follow on questions as well.
4. Inspire them.
I really don’t think it’s the job of the mentor – first ime or experience – to inspire their mentees. Frankly if the mentee is not inspired by the problem they are solving, the team they have or will put together and the goal of acquiring customers they shouldn’t be starting a business. That’s not to say you should be a wet blanket and try to damp out their founder fire. But it’s more important to understand where your experience and expertise is applicable and where it isn’t. Today we had several mentors with significant expertise and experience in manufacturing, but each one was careful to outline that expertise in their introductions and then to use it only where it seemed applicable.
You’ll find various other tips and techniques on this blog in the Category mentoring. But I’ll list a couple of important tips for the first time mentor.
Provide a good introductory bio
Don’t assume that your mentee has read your LinkedIn bio or otherwise has an idea of who you are. Generally where and how you were educated isn’t very important unless you happen to have that in common with your mentee, then it becomes important as a helpful way to help build the relationship. When giving your work experience don’t assume your mentee is familiar with companies you have worked with. For example today we had a mentor who had worked at DEC. Well 20 or 30 years ago everyone in high tech knew Digital Equipment Corporation. Today DEC is, unfortunately, ancient history to most young founders. Focus on the parts of your bio that show you have expertise and experience either in the domain the founder is working in, like consumer electronics, or building and running a startup, Preferably both! And be concise. Time is precious in mentor meetings, so don’t allow mentors to use up too much introducing themselves.
Be careful with feedback
Very often mentees will present their slide deck or show off their product, prototype or demo. Keep in mind they have put their heart and soul into this, so make any criticism constructive and make sure it’s actionable – something they can do or change. Don’t get into too many operational details, which we used to call “going down the rathole”. Keep your comments at a high level and brief. Make sure you give your mentee an opportunity to respond. Many times if I see something that experience tells me is probably a mistake, rather than saying “that’s not the way to do set up channel marketing, or that’s not the way I set up channel marketing” turn your criticism into a question: “Can you help me understand why you put a technical person in charge of channel marketing?” Maybe that’s not the way you would do, as channel marketing is bizspeak for partner sales, not a technical job. But the founder may have a good reason for doing this.
Give out homework
Assuming you are entering a mentoring relationship versus just giving advice and feedback on a one-shot basis, you and your mentee should agree on what they should accomplish by the next meeting. That will help them focus their business and help you to focus the next mentor meeting.
As important as the to do’s of mentoring are the don’ts. So check out the post 15 Grave Mistakes To Avoid Making With Your Mentee, also based on a Forbes article. Finally if you are a first time mentor I hope for your sake that your mentoring organization practices team mentoring, as is done at MIT. If not, try to sit in on some live mentoring sessions to get a feel for how an experienced mentor goes about their job. And a job it is, even though the compensation is not in dollars!