Ask entrepreneurs to describe their mentors and you’ll hear the words adviser, advocate, backer, believer, consultant, coach, confessor, critic, cheerleader … straight through the alphabet to zealot. While much is made of the critical importance of finding a mentor, the term can seem as broad as the spectrum of human relationships.
“In the best case, mentorship is like any relationship—highly dependent on the knowledge and preferences and characteristics of the individuals. It comes down to chemistry,” remarked Steven Gold, director of Babson College’s Summer Venture Program, who has researched what makes mentors successful.
Rather than try to define chemistry, we asked a number of experts to consider what factors make a successful mentoring relationship between entrepreneur and mentor. They offered six observations.
1. Focus on the entrepreneur first, the business second.
Bob Davis, general partner of Highland Capital Partners and the former president and CEO of Lycos, distinguishes mentors by their dual focus on the person and the venture. He says, “A mentor is someone who takes an active interest in the entrepreneur, and looks to develop their career. They get their fingernails dirty, act as a guardian angel, and can say ‘Yes, I’ve seen that pattern before, let’s help you avoid it.’ They’re at the ready, at the right hand of the entrepreneur for any situation that may develop, whether positive or negative.”
2. Mentoring and coaching are different.
Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Networks, is a member of Babson College’s Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs. She created Springboard Enterprises, a venture catalyst focused on women-led growth companies.
Koplovitz points out: “There’s a difference between a mentor and a coach. We [at Springboard] assign coaches [for short periods] to solve specific issues that we see the entrepreneur needs to solve in order to go to market and be successful raising funds. A mentor is also interested in the individual, but may have broader views on issues not directly related to their current growth patterns. … It could be someone in a corporate environment, a business startup, or even in teaching. It would be somebody with whom you’ve built a trusting relationship so they’re willing to speak with you and give you advice over time.”
3. Entrepreneurs must take responsibility for the relationship.
Cindy Klein-Marmer, manager of the John E. and Alice L. Butler Venture Accelerator Program, cautions that mentors typically are very busy people. Their role is to advise on a particular business situation such as a marketing challenge or personnel dilemma when called upon. “The onus is on the entrepreneur to maintain the relationship, follow up, and keep the mentor engaged. Keep them up to date on what’s happened since the last conversation.”
4. Mentors change focus.
Gold has studied the arc of a mentoring experience and found that the mentor’s focus typically changes after some time.
According to Gold, some mentors are better suited to advising the entrepreneur as an individual. Their strength lies in helping entrepreneurs navigate challenges with being a founder or leader, and identifying how he or she can improve his or her abilities.
“In the early stages, a lot of the mentoring is about definitions and goal-setting, understanding who an entrepreneur is, and often giving very general guidance. It can almost be philosophical,” says Gold.
On the other hand, there are mentors who focus on the venture itself. Often, they are domain experts, focused on market share, research, finance, or positioning.
“As entrepreneurs become more confident over time in terms of their businesses, the mentoring becomes much more focused,” said Gold. “In our experience, we see more personal mentoring early on. As the venture advances, mentoring relates more to the business itself. And, oftentimes, as a business matures, the mentoring reverts to the personal, because the entrepreneur needs to become a leader. After some point, the business is growing and now that person needs to be a corporate leader versus an entrepreneur and oftentimes that is a very difficult personal transition.”
5. Choose mentors with care.
With years of research and experience matching mentors to entrepreneurs, Gold has learned a few things about identifying good matches. He prioritizes practical, real-world experience ahead of academic knowledge. Recognizing that failure is often part of the entrepreneurial process, he also counts on mentors to help young entrepreneurs turn that experience into positive growth opportunities. Finally, he looks for mentors with holistic perspectives. He argues that domain expertise and empathy are equally important to understanding people and businesses in all their complexity.
6. Mentoring is its own reward.
For his part, Davis has been a mentor far more often than he has been an investor. When asked what’s in it for him, he replies, “Nothing’s in it for me. You do it because you have a sense of concern, compassion, interest, love of the business.”
“I had a mentor very early in my career who was very helpful to me, and is still a friend today. He guided me through the day-to-day activities of my job as well as through career development. My advice to any young person as they develop a career is to find that mentor who can help them define, develop, and build a career path.”