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Ann Arbor Spark

March 6, 2018

Mentoring: a designed alliance

Part two in SPARK’s three-part entrepreneur mentoring series.
Mentoring is a joint venture where both parties share responsibility for sustaining the relationship. By following this playbook, both the mentor and mentee will benefit from a purposefully designed alliance.
Know What You Want from Your Mentor
Having a mentor for the sake of having one rarely works. Instead, know precisely what you want from the relationship and communicate that from the outset. Then continually reflect on those goals throughout the mentorship. One way of narrowing your mentor’s focus is to select a mentor whose expertise will complement your own. For example, if you specialize in product development, you may want a mentor to focus on sales, marketing, messaging, positioning, strategy or finance. The entrepreneur sets the agenda.
Listen and Act or Explain Why Not
The worst thing to do to a mentor is ignore him or her. You need to either listen to the mentor and follow the guidance or explain why you are respectfully choosing a different path. Simply ignoring the advice without communications will destroy your relationship and have the mentor lose confidence in you. If you say you’re going to do certain things and they don’t happen, the next time you talk with your mentor it gets uncomfortable. Not only will your mentor think you’re wasting his/her time, they’ll probably think you’re a flake too.
Don’t Start by Asking for Contacts
Many entrepreneurs begin by asking for the mentor’s contact database. This is a very bad idea. You need to first win the confidence and trust of that mentor before asking for this. These are the relationships that the mentor has in the industry and he/she does not want them damaged. Building that confidence and trust first is required or you either won’t get the best relationships or you won’t get the proper endorsement.
Don’t Whine About Your Situation
Being an entrepreneur is tough. You are almost always trying to build a business with a lack of resources (time, money, people, market awareness). Whining about this can turn off the mentor. These constraints are what entrepreneurship is all about. Come to the table with problems and proposed solutions or at least ask for solutions that might work in your situation. Discussing issues is the goal. Whining is not going to help.
Be Prepared for Hart Truths
Selecting a mentor that will push you and ask hard questions without being too harsh or too weak can be critical to the success of the relationship. Too often, entrepreneurs want a cheerleader when in reality, a good mentor is going to push you out of your comfort zone (sometimes in a brutally blunt way). If you can’t take the criticism or advice, don’t ask for mentorship. Listen to the advice and decide what you are going to do. Don’t let your feelings get hurt over asking the mentor to do his/her job. Don’t take things personally. Detach from the emotion.
Communicate Frequently and Consistently
Mentoring relationships work best when there is an agreed upon time frame for communications. While this can be weekly, monthly, or quarterly, it should be consistent both in frequency and structure. For example, each meeting could start with a review of prior discussions and action items. Then discuss the success or failure of those items and agree upon follow-up actions. Changing the agenda flow every time will only add chaos and uncertainty into the mentorship.
Tell The Truth
There is no reason to sugarcoat things with the mentor. A good mentor is not expecting polished results and is comfortable with the messy process of building a company. Too many entrepreneurs treat the mentor relationship like “sales” and want to focus on spinning. If you break a mentor’s trust the relationship is effectively over.
Promote the Relationship
Don’t be afraid to promote the mentorship. If appropriate, list the mentor on your website, in your presentations, and in other ways. You may want to ask your mentor to co-host webinars with you, guest write blog posts, or even attend conferences with you.
Provide Feedback and Measure Results
Tell the mentor what is working and what is not working. Each mentor-entrepreneur relationship is different as expectations and personalities will influence outcomes. Not all experiences are transferable and it is the entrepreneur’s responsibility to help the mentor do a good job. Equally important is to ask the mentor what is working and not working for him/her. A frustrated mentor is more likely to end up as a bad mentor so this communication loop is critical to success. The best way to measure success is to define success metrics and benchmark your relationship accordingly.
Following these simple guidelines will make the relationship with your mentor better and increase the probability of success of your business and yourself. 
The third and final installment of our mentoring series will include first-hand insights from SPARK-mentored startups.