Trying to mentor post-doc scientists

A few weeks ago I was invited to a team mentoring session to help MIT post-docs, many of whom have problems finding work in their field. So a special program has been developed at MIT to help them  to raise capital to create products and/or companies from lab work or invention. The idea was to give them feedback on their investor pitches that they would be delivering at an upcoming meeting.

I found it very taxing trying to follow the post-docs presentations. They tended to have very complex, very technical slides which they then proceeded to explicate in great detail while passing a laser pointer over pertinent areas of the slide.

During a break I happened to walk by a classroom where I heard a professor lecturing. The door to the classroom was slightly ajar, so I stopped to observe what he was doing – which  was standing in front of a white board which was covered with a very complex diagram and lecturing, while he illuminated various sections of his diagram with a laser pointer.

It then dawned on me that these post-docs, who were going to be talking to a
non-technical, non-scientific audience and asking for money to fund the transformation of the lab work into commercial product, were delivering not pitches, but academic lectures. That’s not a good way to raise money, and I told the group as politely as I could that they needed to redo all their presentations from lectures to fellow scientists into pitches for a non-academic audience , including a concluding “ask.”

Whether my advice was heeded, I don’t know, but it was heard. The moral of this story is to know the audience and know the purpose of your mentee’s presentation  or meeting. Without this key information, your mentoring will be wasted.

Mentorship: advocating for a better relationship How a company full of great advocates creates an ever better people culture

Richard Banfield, CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil, a leading design firm in the Boston area, kindly sent me this article. While its focus is on mentors inside a company – the author terms them “advocates” – many of the principles of mentoring  he outlines apply to those of us who mentor multiple companies.

Mike Auraz, the author of the article, concludes the piece on the value of mentorship:

But, when it’s  [mentoring] done right, it creates an incredibly virtuous cycle for both the organization and the people who inhabit it. It creates a thriving culture of high-performers, who are fulfilled and engaged by their work, and who get better and better at an exponential pace. It’s the secret ingredient that makes great workplaces great.

Role playing – why isn’t it used more?

In my many years of mentoring, I have to admit I can only recall being involved in a role playing activity once! But it was extremely effective! After the entrepreneur spent considerable time failing to articulate his value proposition to potential customers the lead mentor said, “Ok, let’s try some role playing. Steve, you are going to be the customer, “John Doe”, you are going to try to sell Steve your product. Ok? Let’s go.”

So with no more preparation than that off we went. Well I have to say, having been on the selling side of the buy/sell equation many times and experiencing all kinds of objections and rejections it eventually became fun to parry poor John Doe’s attempts to sell me with the standard set of objections, “Gee, sorry but all software purchases have to be approved by our IT guy. He’s on vacation. But can you explain to me why we need your product?” or “We already have MiracleX, it does the job. Why is your product better?” “Will your product work with our legacy software?” “Do you have APIs to your product that our developers can use?” “Why is your pricing so much higher than the competition?” And so on.

The role play was sort of like a tennis match and eventually the entrepreneur started sharpening up his answers and returning my volleys. After about 10 minutes of this the lead mentor mercifully put a stop to our role playing. It was clear that the entrepreneur realized he needed to work on defining his value proposition and overcoming typical objections.

I’m not sure why organizations that provide mentoring don’t make use of role playing – it enables mentors to provide real time feedback on how entrepreneurs not only pitch their product, but handle objections, and explain why their product is better than the competition. All without PowerPoint or any other visual aids. There are myriad situations that could be role played, from the obvious customer/salesman, to job candidate/hiring manager, to strategic partner/startup company. I can imagine an entire video series – John Cleese are you reading this? – on these role playing interactions.

IMHO, mentors should receive role playing training and also be taught under what situations to use it, what types of roles they should play, and how they should provide feedback to the entrepreneur on his or her role playing.


Coaching vs. Mentoring

There is a real difference between mentoring and coaching. While my experience being coached is very limited, being confined to the 9th grade basketball team, coaching tends to be extremely directive. There’s the coach’s way or the highway. Quarterbacks don’t even call their own plays anymore, calls are sent in from the coach. As a sports fan for decades, I’m very familiar with coaching and I’m confident in saying, coaching is NOT mentoring. It is a very hierarchical relationship in which it is assumed that the coach knows best, has nothing to learn, and everything to teach.

Mentoring is quite different – it consists of advice, guidance, and counseling. At heart it is a similar to a consulting engagement, with the mentee/entrepreneur being the client. The mentor’s job is to ask the right questions at the right time to help the entrepreneur understand, or better understand, the particular issues under discussion.  Mentors can learn a great deal from entrepreneurs as well as other mentors, in fact that is a motivating factor for me.

Coaching is a monolog; mentoring is a dialog. But both are focused on helping either the athlete or the entrepreneur be the best that he can be and for the venture, be it the team or the company, to be successful.

Coaching also tends to be either one-on-one, or more commonly, one to many (in football their are position coaches, like the receivers coach, linebackers coach, etc.).

The team mentoring as practiced at MIT VMS is quite different. There may be one entrepreneur, two or at most three, but there are always at least two mentors.  In mentoring much more responsibility is put on the mentee to present their business concept or issue. That’s not true in coaching; the coach defines the issue and drives the engagement.

Here are the dictionary definitions, courtesy of Apple’s dictionary:


verb [ with obj. ]

train or instruct (a team or player): he has coached the Edmeston Panthers for six years.

• give (someone) extra or private teaching: he was coached to speak more slowly and curb his hand gestures.

• teach (a subject or sport) as a coach: a Washington realtor who coaches soccer.

• prompt or urge (someone) with instructions: he had improperly coached the witness to testify more credibly.

Note how one-way each example is: coach to player; never player to coach.



an experienced and trusted adviser: he was her friend and mentor until his death in 1915.

• an experienced person in a company, college, or school who trains and counsels new employees or students.

verb [ with obj. ]

advise or train (someone, especially a younger colleague).

Very big difference between advise and teach. That doesn’t mean that mentoring is not educational, it certainly is. And entrepreneurs certainly do learn, from stories, anecdotes or even direct advice. But the manner of interaction is as different as being a soldier vs. being the client of a consulting company. Soldiers receive commands; consulting clients receive recommendations.

Finally perspective is very important. As another post quotes computer scientist Alan Kay, “Perspective is worth 80 IQ points.” The various perspectives of a mentoring team are worth arithmetically even more. There’s a very strong multiplier effect of bringing different perspectives to the same issue in real time.

Team mentoring

I’ve been on six Boards of Directors, four for-profit, venture-backed companies and two non-profit, as well as serving on several startup advisory boards. But before joining the MIT Venture Mentoring Service I had never experienced team mentoring, – the heart of the VMS practice matches up two or more mentors with MIT affiliated entrepreneurs. After an initial meeting a determination is made is other mentors, with different experience and expertise should join the team. There’s a pool of about 150 mentors to draw from.

I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets here and certainly don’t intend to. Only to say that team mentoring is qualitatively different than one-on-one mentoring. There’s far greater value to the entrepreneur in the variety of perspectives and experience and more benefit to the mentors, as they learn from each other.  Obviously it takes a great system build up a stable of mentors and to successfully match them to entrepreneurs to enable team mentoring.

But if your organization, including perhaps a board of advisors, has more than one person who is a good mentor, consider mentoring individual entrepreneurs in teams. The discussions will be richer and deeper, and the entrepreneur will benefit from multiple viewpoints.

To be training in team mentoring you can go through VMS training, as fifty organizations already have.

Ask don’t tell

There’s a hoary saying that the reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth is so we would listen more and talk less. Whatever your religious beliefs, there is great truth in this saying when it comes to mentoring.


In many ways mentoring is similar to the Socratic method. From Wikipedia:

Socratic method, also known as maieutics, method of elenchus, elenctic method, or Socratic debate, is named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates. Elenchus is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue between individuals, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to draw out ideas and underlying presumptions.

However, unlike the Socratic method, mentoring is NOT argumentative in any way. In fact, MIT VMS emphasizes mutual respect between mentors and entrepreneurs, for good reason.

Asking questions of the entrepreneur is one technique. Another is to ask the entrepreneur to come up with his or her own questions. For example, if they are about to meet with a potential strategic partner, rather than tell them what questions to ask, ask them what questions they think they should ask. Thus can begin the dialog and discussion that is so important in mentoring. Arguments and monologs have no place in the mentor room.

The are some exceptions,  such as playing devil’s advocate:

a person who expresses a contentious opinion in order to provoke debate or test the strength of the opposing arguments: the interviewer will need to play devil’s advocate to put the other side’s case forward.

This can be a powerful technique to stimulate the entrepreneur’s thinking. But use it sparingly, as it can be abrasive.

The second exception, and one worth a post of its own, is story telling. Most mentors are seasoned entrepreneurs and have great stories to tell. Sometimes telling a relevant story can really help an entrepreneur understand their own issues.

But keep in mind that 2:1 rule, listen at minimum twice as much as you speak.

My first Skype mentoring session

I’ve long been interested in virtual/distance mentoring. However, I was disappointed to learn that MIT Venture Mentoring Service is very much against; a good friend thinks it won’t work, as she says it’s akin to therapy and needs to be done F2F; and an MIT VMS trained university tried it and failed.

However, due to my idiopathic peripheral neuropathy driving is painful, so I avoid it as much as possible. This obviously cuts down on my mobility. So I’d like to be able to do more mentoring from home.

I met a budding social entrepreneur at SIF and volunteered to help  her out.

We scheduled a Skype call, and aside from the fact I had to deal with Microsoft changing my login procedure and my need to better aim my iMac camera, it worked well. My mentee had so such problems and her face and voice came across loud and clear immediately. (In fact I prefer Skype calls to cellular – the call quality is the best I’ve experienced, better than bandwidth limited landlines and much better than I get from Verizon on my iPhone.

This turned out to be a document-free chat, which went very well. But obviously it was the simplest case, no PowerPoint to review, no demo to watch, only one person to mentor.

So it remains to be seen how well this will work with documents or with more than one mentee. But I’ve had Skype calls with three or four people that worked out well.

I believe that virtual mentoring is not only possible, but inevitable, as the technology improves and access to mentors around the world becomes the new normal. I can’t wait!

How to be a good mentee

If you are offered a mentoring session you want to take maximum advantage of the opportunity. Here’s some tips:

  1. Be prepared. If you have a presentation or demo, rehearse it and make sure it works before you come to the session. Bring any necessary adapters you may need to hook up your laptop or tablet to a projector or large screen TV. If necessary call ahead to find out what type of adapter you will need. It always helps to get there early so your equipment is working when the meeting starts.
  2. Mind the time. Mentors and entrepreneurs can get excited and easily spend a lot of time on a single issue. Know what you want to get out of the session and make sure you spend the time on the issues you want to address.
  3. Take notes. MIT VMS is very wise in requiring mentees to write up a meeting summary and email it to the office. It then goes out to the mentors and is stored online for future reference.
  4. Keep in mind mentoring is an educational experience. You’re there to learn, but mentors also want to learn: about you, your product or service, and how they can best help you.
  5. If you are bringing others to the meeting prep them on their role and the objectives of the meeting so they get the most out of it and contribute appropriately.
  6. Check out the mentors in advance.While everyone introduces themselves at mentor meetings, some mentors do a better job than others. LinkedIn can help you understand the experience and expertise of your mentors.
  7. Remember, mentors are advisors. It’s your company and you make the final decisions. Our job is to give you feedback, perspective, options, and the benefit of our experience.
  8. Don’t be defensive. (And I find very few entrepreneurs are.) Mentors may well challenge your assumptions and play devil’s advocate. It’s for your benefit, don’t take constructive criticism personally.
  9. Do your homework! Most mentoring sessions that go well end up with a homework assignment for the mentee(s). Don’t ask for another meeting without having completed your assignment. Exceeding expectations is highly recommended.
  10. Don’t be afraid to pull the plug. Sometimes mentees aren’t ready for mentoring, sometimes the mentors don’t have the right background to help you. Don’t hesitate to cut the meeting short, in a polite way. Time is precious to everyone and mentors will appreciate an entrepreneur smart enough to recognize that it’s not a fit.
  11. Follow up on referrals. Often mentors will refer entrepreneurs to one or more of their contacts they believe can be helpful. Make sure to follow up on these opportunities and let the mentor know if the contact was helpful.



Mentor introductions

The standard way to start a mentoring meeting usually consists of introductions. But how should you introduce yourself when you are 68 years old and started your first business at age 21 – not counting your lawn mowing service started at age 12? You could take up the whole mentoring session boring the entrepreneurs with your bio.

What I find the most useful is to tailor my intro to the entrepreneur’s venture as much as possible. Therefore if I’m talking to a software developer I’ll highlight my experience in the software industry, if to an education startup, my experience in [higher] education publishing, and so forth. But to demonstrate some credibility as a serial entrepreneur, I do always mention that I’ve been on the founding team of four venture-backed startups, three of which had successful exits, and that I’m currently the Chair of an existing company, It surprises me how often other people – mentors and entrepreneurs alike – either give a very cursory intro – just saying what they do now – or make no effort to connect what they’ve done with why they have chosen to mentor this particular entrepreneur.

It’s the mentor’s job to foster at atmosphere of trust, credibility, and openness and the personal introduction is the first step in that direction, so I recommend all mentors take that phase of the mentoring meeting seriously and put thought into how they introduce themselves to best get the meeting off to a good start.

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