The Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2022

How to Get Mentoring Right

This contributed article was prepared by the authors in a personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Startup Genome.

Susan Amat undefined

As Executive Director of GEN Accelerates, Susan Amat, MBA, Ph.D., supports capacity-building and program development for entrepreneur support organizations and governments. She is also the CEO and founder of Venture Hive, a software and training company that supports innovation management and entrepreneurship programs. A serial entrepreneur, she built several businesses in the entertainment industry.

“Transparency from the very beginning is essential.”

Mentoring has been completely bastardized in the startup ecosystem. There are accelerators and incubators that bring in someone to have 10 half-hour meetings with founders over the course of a day and call it mentoring. Take it from someone who started her career as a founder who relied on mentors, wrote her Ph.D. thesis on mentoring, and has since spent decades in entrepreneurial education — that's not mentoring.

I have dedicated my career to designing mentor programs and training mentors to be data driven and to create a transparent, yet confidential, process. Mentoring isn’t coaching. It’s not consulting on your business’s trickiest problems. It’s not having someone with a golden resume off whom to bounce ideas. It’s deeper than that. Mentoring is a long-term commitment to building an individual, to helping them reach their goals and developing themselves so that, eventually, they can operate independently of their mentor.

Mentoring involves a deep, personal connection and commitment between two people over long periods of time. People might have multiple mentors at one time. Mentors may come and go depending on your stage of life or career. But these relationships are always about more than business. They are about helping you become the person you want to become.

How do you find and form such a valuable mentor relationship? Forget half-hour meetings and occasional calls to discuss specific business challenges. Instead, successful mentoring relationships are built on a handful of essential principles. Many people in the startup world get mentoring totally wrong. Here’s how to get it right.

Start with Transparency & Alignment On Goals

The most important component of a successful mentoring relationship is alignment of expectations. Do you want to talk through personal challenges? Discuss leadership issues? Tackle tough ethical calls? How often do you want to talk? Once a week, once a month, or whenever you happen to be freaking out? There is a whole spectrum of mentorship relationships, but all of the good ones rest on both parties agreeing on what they’re trying to accomplish together and roughly how they’re going to organize these efforts. Transparency from the very beginning is essential.

Mentors should ask questions to ensure alignment from the start, but if they don’t do this, the responsibility falls to mentees. If your mentor is not clear in laying out their expectations, you should take the initiative and ask questions like: What frequency would you like our meetings to have? How would you like me to share information with you? Should we set up regular touch points?

Focus on the Human, Not the Bio

Many universities and large organizations run mentorship programs in which they match people based on shared background and goals. You two are both women in engineering? Great, you’re a match. Go forth and mentor! These programs are rarely effective because job title and biographical details aren’t actually the right criteria for successful mentor matching. Mentoring shouldn’t be an effort to create a mini-me.

I have often worked with founders who will be impressed with someone’s background and will pursue them as a mentor based on their resume. That rarely works either. There are many people with impressive LinkedIn accounts with whom you will not click in real life. Finding the right mentor is about personality fit, mutual respect, and a meeting of the minds — not about who has the most impressive credentials or the biography that seems most aligned to your goals on paper.

Build Your Relationship Capital

Great mentoring relationships are grown over time, as mentees reveal themselves to be respectful, appreciative, open-minded, and forthcoming. Too many entrepreneurs will have one or two meetings with a mentor, never follow up, and then out of nowhere a year later, reach out for help or an introduction. Nobody wants to work with that person.

As a mentee, you should follow up after every meeting, keep mentors up to date on your progress, express appreciation, and offer feedback if you think the relationship could work better. Great mentors are in high demand and they all want the same thing — honest, accountable, transparent mentees who follow through on discussions and ideas. There are plenty of disruptors with bold ideas out there who they could mentor. What will set you apart is being honest, open, and respectful because, unfortunately, those qualities are rare.  

Be Organized

Successful mentoring relationships might be built on respect and personal connection, but that doesn’t mean you should leave your organized professional hat at the door. I recommend to both mentors and mentees that, after every meeting, they put notes together about what was discussed and next steps. Before a meeting is set, put together a basic agenda outlining what will be discussed. Bringing professionalism to your mentor relationship helps you get the most out of every hour and also conveys how much you cherish the relationship.

Mentorship isn’t just a bit of advice or consulting. There are plenty of great people out there available to hire to talk through a particular business challenge. Mentoring is more than that. It is sacred. And if you treat your mentor in a way that elicits the right level of sharing and openness, you will find that you have a champion not just for your current business, but for your life.