Mentoring: Best Practices

The Mentor Capital Network, as our name implies, is focused on creating mentor relationships.

Ten years of detailed study have led us to focus on four principles:

  1. Time – respect everyone’s time.
  2. Choice – allow the mentors and mentees to choose each other.
  3. Role – set clear expectations of the roles you will play
  4. Tasks – have specific and achievable tasks and goals.

We’ve learned that if we ask people to mentor, they generally have two responses: “I’d love to.” Quickly followed by “I’m really busy. How much time is involved? And, what, exactly, do you mean by mentoring?” So instead, we ask people to start with a specific task – reviewing a business plan or two over a fixed time period.  We also have events and conference calls for people to join.

Reviewing business plans not only allows them to get to know something about the entrepreneur they might work with, but it allows the entrepreneur, through the reviewer’s feedback, to get to know them.  Our goal is to create the opportunity for the reviewer and the entrepreneur to choose each other.

First, read the feedback. Let us know which feedback you found most helpful. A useful guideline is — does the comment stands on its own? Do you feel you learned something, without any context or further communication with the reviewer?

Secondly, send a quick thank you note to the reviewers, who spend an average of 2.5 hour reading and reviewing each plan. We say “quick” because we know that most of the entrepreneurs will want to send a detailed note, mentioning a particular comment you found helpful. Do also send that, once you’ve read and digested the feedback. But sometimes it takes a while for busy entrepreneurs to get around to that. And we want to make sure that our (volunteer!) reviewers get thanked.

For some of the reviewers, that will be it. We understand that you don’t have the time to build relationships with ten or twelve new people.

You will (we hope) want to actively connect with some of them. Either you thought their comments were helpful, or their backgrounds look interesting, or both. If you can, meet them in person. You’ve got their LinkedIn addresses, so you can figure out what city they are in. Otherwise, set up a call. If you need to use our Zoom account, email us at network@mentorcapitalnet.org and we’ll help you set that up.

Next, figure out what kind of role you’re both going to play. Often, you won’t know this until you have your first connection – so make that the goal of your first conversation. It is very important to figure out your role up-front, as well as understanding that roles change over time.

  1. Will this be a one-time call, where you might ask follow-up questions about their comments? Or ask them very specific questions based on their background?
  2. Will this be an ongoing relationship, where they become a mentor?
  3. Are they mentoring you, or your company? Sometimes it might be helpful to have your leadership be part of the process – and sometimes it might be best if there is a one-to-one relationship.
  4. Is this a peer-to-peer relationship? The Mentor Capital Network reviewer/mentor pool is full of people who are solving the same kinds of problems that you are, but not competing for the same customer dollar/euro/baht/etc. – these are often our most successful mentorships.
  5. Once they have worked with you for three months, it is legitimate for our reviewers to try and sell you their services. (This is rare, but it happens.) However, they need to be completely up front about it, and not come at you with a hard sell. If you think someone is being too pushy about selling their services to you, please let me know ASAP via ian.fisk@mentorcapitalnet.org.  We’d rather these connections are not transactional, but sometimes that is the best solution to moving a company forward. Just be clear about it.

Tasks

If you do end up with a mentoring relationship, keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep the challenges medium-sized. Specific enough that the mentor can move you forward over the course of a conversation, and general enough that their background can give them big-picture pattern recognition. But make sure the tasks big enough that you’ll be doing them yourself—the mentor is your guide, not your intern.
  • If you can send your mentor an agenda / questions / topics of conversation in advance, do so. Keep the questions focused and specific. You’ll probably get 30 minutes of content out of a 45-60 minute meeting/call. Keep these things simple – neither the mentee or mentor should have too much “homework.” Our recommendation for the 1st meeting agenda — determine the roles, as noted above.
  • Be clear if it’s going to be a present-first or interactive-the-whole way conversation. It can be valuable for the mentee to describe a particular challenge you’re having, and how you’re addressing it, and then just ask “what might I be missing?”  (Mentors, this is a great time to acknowledge small victories by the mentee.)
  • Ask the mentor what they want to get out of this. Maybe it’s a peer-to-peer setup, and you are sharing best practices.
  • Clarifying questions are a great way to start. After the mentee has presented their challenge, don’t necessarily launch straight into your suggestions. Ask any questions you have (including things like “why is that valuable?”) that might help direct your feedback.
  • As a mentor, one of the most valuable things you can share is knowing what the next problem might be. Often, when we solve one problem we creates another. Most of our mentors have taken an idea to scale, and seen how the challenges change over time.
  • Start meetings with a check-in on goals set at the last meeting. But don’t get stuck on them. If the mentee hasn’t been able to move forward on the issue due to an external issue, recognize that,  and focus on another project.
  • End each meeting with goals for the next time you connect.
  • Ask the mentor about their goals. Even if you’re not peer-to-peer, keep the conversation two-way.
  • Have a schedule, but be flexible. Set calls for twice a month, but be ready to move them if something comes up.
  • For the mentors – if you can’t give actionable advice on a particular challenge, say so. If the mentee is going down a path where you don’t think you can add specific value, let them know.
  • Have a friendly exit path. If you get to a point where you’re not both getting value out of the connection, find a way to either move on or put it on hold. One great way to re-engage is around the business plan. Once a year, you should review your business plan to see what’s actually happened and what changed. Engaging a mentor as an outside perspective, even if you’re no longer in regular communication with them, can be very valuable.