Why Mentoring Matters

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket – the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/05/02/why-mentoring-matters/

There’s a big drive to increase the number of business mentors in the UK today through Government-backed initiatives like Get Mentoring and Mentorsme.co.uk. This is because along with finance, mentoring is regularly cited by start-ups as one of the things they need most in order to achieve success. Indeed, research shows that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more (double the rate of non-mentored entrepreneurs) and 20% are more likely to experience growth.

But what exactly is a Mentor? Well, it does seem to differ depending on who is asking and at what stage of development they are at, although the Wikipedia definition of ‘someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague’ is probably one you are already familiar with. In general, a mentor is usually a trusted person with whom the mentee can discuss ideas or problems and receive impartial feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism. A two-way process, the ideal relationship is one where the mentor gains just as much as the mentee, by being mentally stimulated and having the feel-good factor of ‘giving something back’ to the ecosystem.

Most of my career has involved ‘helping’ people in some way or another. Sharing knowledge and ideas and encouraging others to fulfil their potential is something that I not only feel is a worthwhile occupation but something that I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from. The past three years in particular have involved me sharing business start-up information online by writing website articles and blogs, signposting young entrepreneurs to useful resources, delivering lectures in person, moderating forums and answering queries by phone, email and social media. In effect, I’ve been working as a virtual mentor for people across the UK, so when the Get Mentoring campaign began, I decided to register for some ‘official’ training to give me a better understanding of the role and how I could do more in an offline setting.

One of the things that surprised me about this training was that the ‘official’ Get Mentoring definition of a mentor is slightly different to what I understood it to be. There is a clear emphasis on the fact that although a mentor is there to be a sounding board and offer feedback, they’re not supposed to offer ‘advice’ to the mentee. Instead, the mentor is advised to do lots of signposting, ask challenging questions and encourage the mentee to arrive at their own conclusions through reflective conversations around problems. The difficulty arises when the mentor is asked a direct question like, ‘What would you do in my situation?’ or ‘How do you do X?’ and the mentee expects a direct answer or opinion on the matter. In this situation, the mentor is ok to talk about relevant, personal experience but is meant to offer a range of options from which the mentee can choose.

I understand the theory and reasoning behind this thinking, but in real-life, the entrepreneurs I meet and communicate with online usually want a quick answer so I’m not 100% convinced that the no-advice rule is suitable in every situation. I think it depends on the mentee, the urgency of their problem and the relationship with the mentor. Having said that, the ultimate mentors – Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi of Star Wars – often talked in riddles and set tests for Luke Skywalker to overcome and emerge more skilled as a Jedi warrior, so perhaps it depends on the scale of the task?

Startup Weekend Newcastle

Since doing the Get Mentoring training, I’ve had the chance to be a mentor at two key events in the tech start-up world. The first was at a fifty four hour Startup Weekend event in Newcastle where I did an epic twelve hour stint mentoring twelve teams who had only met the previous evening. Perhaps it was the time-limited nature of the event but there was a real intensity to each mentoring slot which felt more like a brainstorming session in which all kinds of crazy ideas were suggested by everyone in the room, before the best ones were filtered out and developed further. I got a huge buzz out of this event as I was able to share insight and knowledge whilst receiving inspiration from the mentees in return. It was also particularly pleasing to see that each of the teams had implemented some of the ideas we had discussed in their final pitches, demonstrating that they had both listened to and believed in me as a mentor.

Springboard London

A few days later, I travelled to London to spend a day at the new Google Campus to meet and mentor the eleven start-ups who are part of the Springboard London tech accelerator programme. This was more like a speed dating event where I was given a table and then each of the teams were given twenty minutes with me to build up a rapport, discuss their business and challenge their assumptions. Again, the short time period meant there was little time for polite chit chat and so it was straight down to business. I’d been sent background information on each of the teams and they had all done their homework on me too which was great to see as it helped the conversation move much faster than it would have otherwise. Apart from feeling good about helping a group of exciting new businesses there is kudos for me in being involved in a programme which is at the epicentre of the European tech start-up scene, not to mention the chance to spend a day at the Google Campus.

Rocket @ Google Campus

Start-up launchpad @ Google Campus

These recent experiences have convinced me that mentoring is a vital ingredient in the success of any new start-up. In my opinion, the major advantage that Springboard London, its Newcastle equivalent (ignite100) and similar tech accelerator programmes throughout Europe and the US give to their participants is not only access to finance but a wide range of experienced mentors who can open doors and help them achieve their goals much faster than they could on their own. Ultimately, it is still the start-ups themselves who are doing the work, but to know that there is a network of people out there who believe in you and your idea(s) can often be the difference between success and failure.

Obviously, not everyone is lucky enough to be part of a tech accelerator programme, but you can still build up your own network of mentors. Look around you in your current profession and further afield for people who you admire for their achievements and with experience relevant to what you are aiming to do. There are paid mentoring networks out there you can join but most people are quite happy and flattered to be asked to be a mentor. Just be clear about the format of the relationship, what you are hoping to achieve and respectful of their time. Remember that the mentor is not there to do all the work for you, but rather to talk things through and to push you to ever greater heights. Finding a good mentor or team of mentors could be the most important thing you do in your business career and so it’s important to do your homework and to ask for help. Your search for a mentor (or mentors) begins now!

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