Mentorship Best Practices

What is Mentorship?
The mentor/mentee relationship is a unique and personal relationship, which transcends a mere advisor or board relationship. It is one of the most rewarding things people can be involved in outside of their family relationships. Mentorship doesn’t happen by accident. Both the mentor and the mentee have their parts to play in a successful mentor/mentee relationship.
A “mentor” is a person who has had professional and life experience that can be used to help others learn and develop. The mentor is willing to share these experiences in a manner that the mentee can react to and understand. While there may be commercial aspects to a mentor’s engagement, at its best the advice and help that is offered is provided freely and without expectation of immediate reward. The mentor is the “vendor” of the mentor/mentee relationship and for the mentee the value of the relationship is driven by the quality and objectivity of the mentor’s advice and assistance.
A “mentee” is a person who receives the help and assistance of the mentor. The mentee is willing to be engaged and respectful of the mentor’s time and accomplishments. While there may be commercial aspects to the mentor’s engagement, the mentee should understand that the best mentors are not motivated by money but by personal satisfaction. The mentee is the “customer” of the mentor/mentee relationship and for the mentor the value of the relationship is driven by the ultimate value that the mentee places on the mentor’s help.
Mentorship is not merely advice. It is a bilateral commitment between two people, based upon mutual trust and a commitment. The commitment of the mentor is to provide advice and help to the mentee with the mentee’s best interests in mind. The commitment of the mentee is to be ready to listen to the advice and take the help and act upon it. The currency of the mentor/mentee relationship is personal satisfaction and shared accomplishment.

Is Mentorship the Same Thing as Providing Advice?
A mentor/mentee relationship often is centered upon the giving of advice. Therefore, many advisory relationships can become mentor/mentee relationships over time. And, the most likely way for a mentor/mentee relationship to be created is through an advisory relationship. However, they are not the same. An advisory relationship is one that is predicated upon a particular role or structure (for example, Board of Advisor member, Board of Director member or supervisor) where advice is generally given through the role. A mentor/mentee relationship is more than merely providing advice; it is a bi-lateral relationship where the mentor and the mentee both work with and benefit from the other. There is a very important aspect of shared mission that exists at the core of a mentor/mentee relationship. A mentor doesn’t merely provide war stories or open ended advice. A mentor provides advice in context with the best interests of the mentee in mind.

Why Aren’t Directors, Advisors and Supervisors Mentors?
Mentorship sometimes occurs through formal or commercial relationships where one person supervises or assists another. However, they are distinct. In a formal relationship, such as a Board of Directors or supervision in a corporate environment, there is an advisor, who offers advice and instruction, and the advisee, who receives advice and instruction. These relationships are generally commercial in nature, and the relationship is defined by an expectation that advice or help provided is actionable. Generally, where advice and help is offered in these relationships, a failure on the part of the recipient to act in accordance with such advice and help usually conflicts with a broader commercial purpose. The best interests are generally defined as the best interests of an enterprise where the advisor and advisee are engaged. If there is a conflict between the best interests of the advisee and the enterprise, the best interests of the enterprise are controlling.
Many of the attributes that we believe are part of a successful mentor/mentee relationship, also occur in a formal advisory relationship. FounderCorps believes that the best advisors will share the positive attributes of a mentor. However, the recipient of advice in a formal relationship should be mindful of the potential for conflict between what is best for the advisor/advisee and what is best for the entity.

Mentorship Must be Free of Conflict
Conflict in itself is neutral – it is merely a lack of congruence between the best interests of the person giving advice, the person getting the advice, and the organization (if any) through which the advice is given. The conflict does not mean that the various parts of the relationship are destined to fail, or that the conflict cannot be resolved in a way that serves the best interests of all. In an ideal situation, any conflict should be identified and discussed. We believe that in any advisor/advisee relationship conflicts should be identified and acknowledged. This does not defeat the possibility of a successful advisor/advisee relationship, and results in an honest relationship where parties will know which best interests will ultimately control. For example, in a Board of Directors relationship, the board members may give advice to a CEO in a manner that is similar to a good mentor, but in the event that the CEO does not follow advice, the CEO may be fired if it is in the best interests of the CEO’s employer.
The mentor/mentee relationship should usually be free of conflict. The best interests of the mentee should be tantamount. Following from this is an expectation that the mentor is not exposed to liability or financial obligation. The best mentor/mentee relationship is based upon advice and support freely given and freely ignored.

What Supports a Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationship?
The currency of a successful mentor/mentee relationship is personal satisfaction. It is not a commercial relationship, and relies upon participants deriving psychic benefits. Nevertheless, there can be possibilities of ancillary benefits – reputational benefits, introductions to subsequent commercial opportunities and networking. These possibilities motive many mentors and mentees. However, in the moment or period when a mentor/mentee are engaging, the ancillary benefits must be of secondary concern.

How Does the Mentor/Mentee Relationship Begin?
Mentorship relationships can arise out of formal relationships; however they cannot be created formally. Board of Advisor, Board of Directors and supervisors may offer advice, but they are not mentors. The mentor/mentee relationship arises informally through positive association over a period of time. Its success requires a personal relationship, based upon trust. This allows it to be more useful for the mentee, but also more difficult to obtain. As is the case of any personal relationship, consistency and integrity over an extended period are usually required to establish the deep connection of a mentor/mentee relationship.

Does That Mean Mentor/Mentee Relationships Should Always Be Informal?
The mentor/mentee relationship has to work for both parties. This often means that the best relationships are those that have clarity of expectations, for example, time commitment per month or time period. Both parties should acknowledge that most mentor/mentee relationships have an end point, where they do not work for one or the other. Therefore, the best mentor/mentee relationships often arise out of a formal interaction, for example, assisting in a business plan competition. Or, around a specific time period. In the absence of a formal initial structure, mentors/mentees should include in their interactions a regular check-in discussion, to make sure that both are getting the positive benefits they need for it to be a rewarding relationship. Expectations and motivations need to be understood and acknowledged at all times.

What is the Best Way to Find a Mentor?
Mentorship cannot occur until the mentee is ready for a mentor’s assistance. Mentors are best found through positive interactions in a formal advisory setting or through referral to a mentor from a trusted referral source. A mentor wants to know that the mentee is ready to be mentored and has the characteristics necessary for the mentor to have a positive experience working with the mentee. Formal vetting programs, like an advisory program operated by a University or community group are often the best place to find mentors. Professional service providers are often a good source of mentors, because successful service providers that work with entrepreneurs tend to have deep relationships with many experienced people who would be suitable mentors if asked.

What Are the Most Important Attributes of a Successful Mentor/Mentee Relationship?
The most successful mentor/mentee relationships have many of these characteristics.

  • Understanding of each other’s “winning strategy”. One of the interesting things about people is that under stress they tend to go back to the behavior patterns learned in childhood to get their way. Inorder for mentors and mentees to communicate well they must appreciate how the other deals with challenges, and speak to each other in a way that the other can hear. Mentors/mentees don’t have to have the same winning strategy, but when they don’t match up there is a need for a higher level of sensitivity and care.
  • Both mentor and mentee have to be coachable. Both parties in a mentor/mentee relationship must be self-aware and able to take criticism and modify their behavior. Without coachability you don’t have a real exchange of information and a shared experience – you have one-directional communication.
  • Both are respectful of time commitments. Mentor/mentee relationships generally are not professional in nature, and occur as an adjunct to the participants’ day jobs, family responsibilities and hobbies. It is not always convenient to be a mentor or mentee. Therefore it is essential that each party be flexible whenever possible, and tries to limit emergencies to real emergencies.
  • Both must act on information received. Each party must listen to the other and demonstrate through conduct some sort of acknowledgment. A good mentor does not need to have her advice followed, but if a mentee continually ignores advice and thoughts without discussing why, he runs the risk of creating for the mentor the sense that she is wasting her time. For the mentor, not listening to the mentee and modifying advice or how it’s delivered, creates for the mentee a sense that the mentor isn’t really interested in a bilateral relationship.
  • There must be honesty and transparency. Very simple to say, but hard to do. The best mentor/mentee relationships are valuable because there is a real exchange of viewpoints and feedback. This can’t happen if critical facts are omitted, or words are measured to protect feelings.
  • Mentors must be willing to provide substantial benefits. Mentees look for mentors to provide support, empathy and contacts. They should also look to their mentors to provide an external monitoring process of the mentee’s progression against the shared goals identified by the mentor/mentee.
  • Mentees must not embarrass or abuse their mentor’s trust. Mentees should ensure that any introduction or other extension of assistance by the mentor is treated with respect and that there is follow through. A mentee should treat each introduction by a mentor seriously and professionally. There needs to be an appreciation that when a mentor acts to assist a mentee by making introductions or otherwise using his own influence, there is a reputational risk to the mentor if the mentee does not perform. A mentee who embarrasses a mentor will not likely get a second opportunity.
  • There must be discretion. Along with honesty, keeping confidences is essential. A successful mentor/mentee relationship is likely to be based upon the sharing of personal information and feelings. The more comfortable the participants are in sharing sensitive information, the more valuable and lasting the mentor/mentee relationship. There is not a specific requirement for a confidentiality agreement to be in place between a mentor/mentee (unlike professional advisors). However, all communications carry the expectation of confidentiality and should be treated carefully.
  • Each party must be open to having the relationship change over time. As is the case with any other personal relationship, the mentor/mentee relationship evolves. Many relationships are situational, or are relevant for a limited time period. Also, at times one party “outgrows” the other. “Breaking up” with a mentor/mentee can be emotionally difficult. However, since most mentor/mentee relationships occur in business, it is essential to be professional and not demeaning when the relationship is no longer satisfying to one party or the other. The business community is surprisingly small.
  • A mentor/mentee relationship is not a family relationship. Finding a mentor is something that many look for in the business world. A mistake that many mentor/mentees make is to analogize their relationship to a family relationship, like a big sister or uncle. But, mentors/mentees are not your relatives. They are people who are in a mutually beneficial relationship, based upon positive psychic rewards. You should never take a mentor/mentee for granted. They don’t have to understand if you are having a bad day, or if you have always been nasty around the holidays.
  • Evaluate professional mentors the same as amateurs. Even where there might be a conflict of duties (i.e., whose “best interests” are to be served), if these conflicts can be acknowledged, a mentor/mentee relationship can be created. Conflicts are not disabling, so long as the conflict can be managed to not undermine objectivity. There are some jobs where people are professional mentors, for example venture investors or executive coaches. The best mentor/mentee relationships in these circumstances mirror the best practices described above. For instance, where VC/entrepreneur relationships failure, you often find the basis of the failure in their inability to establish an effective mentor/mentee relationship.