P R Ganapathy | September 14, 2014

How to pick a good mentor

So, you’ve decided you need a Mentor to help you navigate the difficult waters of your early-stage enterprise. Or you’ve been accepted to a program where they assign you a mentor, and you want to make sure that you’re getting the most out of the person they pair you with. How can you do due diligence on a mentor? Or even before that, can you do due diligence on a mentor? (Oh! The heresy!)

I have no doubt in my mind that it’s important for an entrepreneur to do due diligence and get comfortable with anyone that is going be associated with the success or failure of his or her enterprise. If a mentor has to be effective, he or she will have an intimate insight into your business, in all its gory detail, and you can’t share that sort of stuff with just anybody. You have to know the person is right.
So what sorts of questions should you be asking? I’ve attempted to put some together, based on my experience mentoring and pairing mentors with, Indian social enterprises.

Understand their motivation
Why are they doing this? Probe and make sure that you understand the real reasons and motivation. Any mismatch between their stated or unstated expectations and your ability to deliver will quickly sour the relationship.

Do they have the time?
Now? In the future? At any time of the day or night or on weekends? It is not out of order to find out what they do now, and how much time their other commitments take from them. Does he/she travel a lot? Where? An entrepreneur who is away to the US (12-hour time difference) may be difficult to reach when the chips are down or in a crisis. Where is the mentor physically located? I believe (and so do many mentors I’ve spoken to) that the most effective mentoring is done when the mentor and protégé are located in the same city and can meet in person regularly. Remote mentoring may work, but is rarely as effective.

Third, are they fully on board?
Do they “get” what you’re trying to do? Having a mentor who constantly needs to be convinced about your mission and strategy can be frustrating and tiresome. Is this person an optimist? A person suffused with the “power of possibility”? A mentor who is constantly pulling you down and telling you why you shouldn’t be doing something can be a real drain on your energy. That’s not to say they should reflexively support just about anything you say. But his/her style should be that they don’t curb your natural entrepreneurial enthusiasm in the process of giving feedback. The last point on this topic: Are they willing to open up their networks, connections for you? Mentoring is more than just advice; mentors open doors that would otherwise be difficult for you to get into. If your mentor says that he/she doesn’t want to do that, you may have a commitment problem.

Next, do your styles match?
What is his/her communication style? If your mentor is used to picking up the phone any time of the day or night but rarely checks or responds to email, while you’re an email person, you may have trouble keeping in touch. More importantly, are they good listeners? Do they take time to listen, learn, probe and question, before offering advice? Too many know-it-all mentors leap into providing your suggestions and opinions without getting the full picture. Their advice is often of little value, and the experience can be frustrating. Is this person detail oriented? Will they roll up their sleeves and get into the field, get into the details with you? Are they used to your size, scale, resources? I’ve had mentors who came from big corporations or consulting firms that were used to thinking in large scale, and with (at least for a start-up) unlimited resources. On the other hand, here you are praying that your large client pays on time so that you can meet monthly payroll. A mentor who keep pushing you to “think Global, my boy!” when you’re struggling to ship product to Gummidipoondi can be a real pain.

Lastly, do they respect you as the entrepreneur?
You want a mentor who understands that he/she doesn’t run the business – you do. They have a role to play – to look at the issues and offer the best, most reasonable advice that they can give. But like the Pilot in Command of an aircraft, the final decision, and responsibility, is yours. Do they get that? While you will go to extra lengths to explain your final decision and why it was at odds with the mentor’s recommendation, a mentor who sulks and reduces engagement is someone you’re better off without.

Of course, there are the hygiene factors: integrity and trustworthiness, no game playing, easy to get along with, no ego, etc., that you should definitely check for.

Start-up Entrepreneurship is a lonely journey. There are few people you can share your innermost thoughts with: the frustrations and joys, the challenges and opportunities and the fears that constantly dog you. Finding a good mentor and making the relationship work is one of the best ways to overcome this. But like marriages, good mentor relationships aren’t made in heaven – you need to work on them. Hopefully some tips that I’ve given you here will help you avoid the pitfalls that have befallen many entrepreneurs before.

Happy hunting!