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Startup Mentoring: 5 Tips for Mutually Beneficial Mentorship Program

Today, startup mentoring is actively used for network growth, new opportunities, sharing experience and knowledge of a more experienced with a less experienced entrepreneur, or to get specific information that a mentor possesses. Effective mentoring can provide many benefits to both entrepreneurs (as mentees) and mentors. The question is, how to ensure that the mentor-mentee relationship is effective and beneficial for both parties

There’s no such thing as the perfect mentor and mentee relationship. In fact, mentorship is a mutual human relationship and is unique to the people involved. As any relationship, mentorship requires trust, respect, and commitment to be functional. And, as any human relationship, it requires active participation and actions towards the common goals from both sides.

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The tips below can help to make the mentor-mentee relationship a great experience rewarding for both.

1. Make sure it’s a match

Even the most robust mentoring efforts can produce quite unimpressive results if the mentor-mentee pairings are wrong. Making sure that the mentor possesses the strengths and qualities that are required to resolve problems experienced by the entrepreneur will set up for success of the mentorship on a professional side. Finding similarities, mutual values and other things in common at an individual level will help to build interpersonal relationships. Ultimately, without a connection on a personal level mentor and mentee can hardly communicate effectively and work toward similar goals.

People come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. It is a good idea to get to know each other on an individual basis prior to making any commitments. This can be achieved by finding activities and exercises that can be done together in an informal setting, or, by preparing a set of questions and conducting an interview or survey before or during the first meeting. The importance of obtaining the right information and ways to get access to it are discussed next.

2. Use data 

“Data really powers everything that we do.” — Jeff Weiner. In fact, information is one of the most valuable assets in the modern world. 

Getting as much information as possible before setting up any objectives and expectations, and the overall direction of the mentorship program is important to avoid misunderstanding and disappointment. Additionally, the more the mentor and mentee know about each other, the more productive will be the time spent together.

Prior to the first meeting, information can be also gathered from third parties. It would be worth, for example, to know how successful were the previously delivered mentorship programs by the mentor. External feedback, if available, can provide a high level of detail about each other and define the right questions that will be asked when meeting for the first time. 

Preparing clear questions before a meeting is essential to drive strong communication at any stage of a mentorship program. In the beginning, generic questions that should be addressed in both ways are typically related to the previous background and experience, interests and objectives, availability, and those more specific to the business areas. 

Mentors should gather details about the current status, hopes, fears, and goals for the future, aspects the mentee is weak and what they need to strengthen, communication styles, and overall goals and expectations of the mentee. 

Mentees should ask questions related to the existing business network of the mentor, market access and potential opportunities in the selected area, and willingness to share them. Taking notes, and defining action items during the conversation are also great to collect data. 

3. Establish clear objectives, goals, and expectations

Aligning the expectations of both the mentor and the mentee is crucial to getting the most out of the mentoring relationship. Unstated assumptions or expectations can easily derail any relationship.

To avoid miscommunication, it is important to clearly define the availability and unavailability (e.g. due to personal travel) of both parties, the level of commitment required and what can be provided, duration of the mentorship, ways to get in contact, modes of mentoring - coaching, teaching, advice, guidance, etc., and any other expectations specific to the startup

It is important to make it clear that the mentor provides support and advice, not miracles. Setting clear boundaries and having a formal set of guidelines is a good way to ensure that everyone knows exactly what their roles are within the mentorship program. Expectations can change during the program; those agreed upon early on may not be the same later. It is important that they are communicated in periodic conversations.

When the expectations are clear, it is very critical to set concrete, measurable targets to assess whether mentoring is beneficial and to follow these targets regularly. These can be defined as key performance indicators (KPIs), as well as a plan of action that will help the entrepreneur to achieve the goals.

The performance indicators must be very clear to show the success of mentoring and the startup overall. Normally they would be related to a certain increase in sales of products or services, getting more customers, and/or getting more investments. For example, reducing digital marketing costs by 15%, 20% increase in market share, and adapting the existing product to the ‘x’ markets. Overall, measuring the success of a startup undoubtedly benefits both mentor and mentee, as well as the investors.

4. Embrace feedback

Communication in mentorship is a two-way road and is essential for a successful mentor-mentee relationship. Regular checking in with each other, delivering truthful, direct feedback as well as being an active listener are the keys to getting the most out of the mentoring process. 

It is the mentor's job to give honest feedback and advice, some of which will be positive and some of which will be constructive, but the mentee should also be able to share with the mentor whether the process and deliverables meet the expectations and address any concerns.

All milestones, no matter how small, should be recognized. Failures should be analyzed together and new tactics and strategies can be developed and direction can be adjusted. Any concerns and unsettlements should be worked out as early as possible. Two-way discussions also facilitate the exchange of ideas between a mentor and mentee. Transparent feedback helps to maintain a strong level of trust, and establish and solidify the relationship.

5. Be open-minded

It is quite obvious that the mentee must be willing to learn new things, obtain another perspective, and be responsive to suggestions and constructive criticism for the mentorship to be effective. The mentor, however, can also benefit from the mentee’s experience, knowledge, and different point of view. In the same way, a mentoring relationship is not meant to be comfortable. It should challenge both sides professionally and personally.

It was outlined in the previous section that constructive feedback is one of the elements that determines the success of the mentorship. Both mentor and mentee can face criticism during the process, and it is a natural human reaction to ignore or even ‘fight back’ which can significantly ruin the relationship. It is helpful in such cases to adopt what is called a ‘growth mindset’ and, instead, leave the comfort zone and consider how that information or advice can benefit personal improvement and growth. In other words, both mentor and mentee can get significantly larger benefits out of the program by listening to another’s opinion, making an effort to open up, and keeping the ego aside.

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