“What exactly do you do as a mentor?” people often ask me. I usually start by telling them what I don’t do. I don’t “teach” entrepreneurs how to build their products or run their services. These guys live and breathe their products and services 24/7. They can teach me a lot of stuff about them. I don’t give them gyaan – XYZ company does it this way or ABC management guru says such-and-such. These entrepreneurs are racing against time, wearing 10 different hats while doing so. The last thing they need to hear is generic advice that doesn’t address their issues.
Most of the time, as a mentor, I am just a sounding board. I try and meet each of my mentees at least once a week – and this is apart from special meetings, issue-specific calls, etc. They tell me about their progress, achievements, problems and challenges. All I ask for is a little bit of structure – can we revisit some of the things we spoke about last week, did any action happen based on our discussion, and so on. You’ll be surprised at the power of listening. As the meeting approaches, my mentees automatically pull themselves out of the day-to-day operations and take stock of the week gone by. A great amount of clarity emerges through this process. And, being able to discuss strategy or voice out issues and concerns to an experienced campaigner gives them confidence, and also helps them release the pressure they face. For me, as mentor, this process really sets me up for what I’m going to talk about next, which to me is the mentor’s most important role.
I believe that the most critical function of a mentor is to provide decision support to the entrepreneur. In the early stages of the start-up journey, every week, if not every day, entrepreneurs find themselves at a crossroad. Will this feature enhance my product? Is this expense worthwhile? Should I hire this person? Should I fire that person? Should I accept the terms of this contract? More than the workload, it is the burden of these decisions that pull an entrepreneur’s energy level down. This is where, as a mentor, I can make myself extremely useful. Through my weekly meetings, I already have an in-depth knowledge of my mentee’s business. By being a good listener, I have won over their confidence. Now, by asking the right questions, and also bringing to bear all the learning over my many years of work experience (not to mention the many mistakes I have committed), I feel I am able to help my mentee grapple with these challenges and make informed, if not always right, decisions. Here too, my role as a pressure-release valve cannot be understated.
Over my many years of work experience, I have built up a strong network of contacts. I am connected to these people not just by the fragile and unreliable threads of a social network, but by solid hours of working together and observing their responses to various situations. My word carries weight with them. I am able to make introductions that add value to my mentees' activities. If a partnership materializes, I am able to intervene to move it along to its logical conclusion. Through my network, I have helped fill key positions in my mentees’ teams, bring in specialist consultants, open up new lines of business or create win-win partnerships for them.
Lastly, as a mentor, I have the luxury of detaching myself from the day-to-day business of my mentees, and looking at the broader picture. I am able to see trends (both internal and external), risks, pitfalls and threats. I am able to take dispassionate views of certain situations, especially where human emotions may be involved. I am able to communicate all these to my mentees in a constructive manner. I see myself acting as a compass, constantly pointing the entrepreneur in the direction they need to go towards.