To follow last month’s panel discussion, we asked Angela Lussier some more questions on the mentor role. She sent back a remarkably clear description of what, in her view, makes a good mentor:
Although a mentor’s level of involvement with a startup may vary, does the role of a mentor change depending on circumstances? Do you think there are any constants in a mentor’s role?
Yes, the role of the mentor changes as the mentee changes. The mentee may have a lot of questions and little direction in the beginning. Their requests for the mentor’s time may be overwhelming at first, but decrease as the project takes shape. It is the mentor’s job to respond to those needs and also be clear about how much time he/she can dedicate at any given point during the relationship.
The constants in a mentor’s role lie in the approach to helping. Listening, reviewing, asking questions, and understanding are all key activities when mentoring.
Should mentors tell a startup what to do?
No, that is what an advisor or consultant would do. There is only one major difference to remember when talking about mentoring versus advising.
Mentoring = pushing
Advising = pulling
As a mentor, your role is to push your mentee to think deeper about the problem. Push them to try new approaches, find the courage to ask harder questions, and push them toward their goals. You are behind them, not leading them.
As an advisor, your role is to pull them along by showing them where to go, what to do, how to do it, and when it needs to be done. There is a time and place for advising, but it is not part of a mentoring relationship. When advising, you are in the driver’s seat. When mentoring, you are in the passenger’s seat.
But what if my advice is really good?
The mentor may see angles in the problem the mentee is trying to solve that will dramatically change the outcome of the work. The mentor can make suggestions to do additional research in that particular area, or consider the implications of that problem from a different perspective. Bringing that expertise to the table should be thought of as a mind-opening opportunity for the mentees, rather than telling them what they are missing.
So there is a difference between making suggestions and mentoring?
Yes. Blindly making suggestions is not useful or productive if you have not taken the time to clearly understand the needs of your mentee(s). There are three important steps to mentoring which eventually lead to suggestions:
1. Listen first. Ask your mentees what they are looking for. Seek to understand where they are in their process.
2. Meet them where they are. Know their goals and how far along they are with each one.
3. Offer ideas and anecdotes to get them thinking about how to answer their own questions. Be specific and help them answer the questions they have today, not 2 weeks or 3 months from now. These suggestions will help them see possible paths to achieving their goals.
How much should a mentor be involved in a startup’s growth?
Directly, not at all. Indirectly, very involved! If the mentor is clearly answering the mentee’s questions and also asking insightful probing questions to make sure the mentee understands the task, the mentor is doing his job. If the mentee is clear on where he is going and sees the value, it is their role to build the business, not the mentor.
How do mentors know if they are useful?
A mentor knows he is useful when the mentee is doing things he never thought possible and feels supported in doing so.
Angela Lussier is an award-winning speaker, author of the Seth Godin recommended book The Anti-Resume Revolution, owner of 365 Degrees Consulting, and vice president of sales & marketing at BestHire.