There's plenty of advice out there for young entrepreneurs looking for mentors to help guide their new ventures. But there's comparatively little on how—or even whether—to sign on as someone's mentor. After all, it can be a taxing experience if you aren't prepared for it. So if you’re considering lending your expertise to help steer a new company, here are a few things you might want to think about first.
Let’s be honest. The thought of being a mentor might puff up your chest and make you feel like a highly sought-after business guru. Sure, you may be a seasoned executive, a veteran of the startup world, or even a retired CEO. It's no surprise that an up-and-coming entrepreneur is tapping you for your expertise. But don't sign on just because you feel complimented.
After all, you might envision coming into this relationship as the entrepreneur’s hero. Maybe the company is struggling and you know you can improve things. Or perhaps there’s a personnel issue, and you're confident you can smooth out interpersonal roadblocks. Whatever the case, you need to come to grips with two things first:
- As a mentor, you are not the business’s lifeline—and you shouldn’t want to be.
- Your mentee reserves every right to disregard your counsel.
Your role as a mentor is to offer guidance and insight on the firm with the understanding that the entrepreneur who's engaged you has the final say. If you agree to the relationship, that's something you'll need to be fully comfortable with, no matter what happens.
Many mentors come in with thoughtful and wise advice for the entrepreneurs they work with. It's easy to get miffed and wash your hands of the company, if after a while you feel that it's falling on deaf ears. But even the decision to walk away—if it comes to that—still ties you to the business’s performance. Once you've joined on as a mentor, that company’s success or failure will partly reflect your involvement. It’s kind of like a marriage: You're going to be connected to its ups and downs, whether the business lasts or falls apart. That's something to bear in mind before coming on board in the first place.
Personality clashes can quickly cancel out the value of any strategic advice you bring to the table.
This might seem like common sense, but many successful executives hold onto the belief that there’s nothing personal in business. We sometimes say something's "just business" in order to dismiss hurt feelings or avoid a brewing conflict. The fact is that your mentee’s company is a collection of individuals with personal stakes in the success of your venture together.
That's important for a few reasons. First, you need to be sure that your personality is compatible with the team you'll be advising. You’re going to be intimately involved and have some sensitive discussions along the way. Personality clashes can quickly cancel out the value of any strategic advice you bring to the table.
Second, mentorship is about creating relationships with those seeking your input. Put the relationship first, and you’ll have success. That way, when you're asked to weigh in on difficult decisions, the entrepreneurs you'd be advising will trust that you have their best interests at heart.
Third, you might not be the only adviser to this team. If other mentors are brought on, you'll have to collaborate with them. It may not be what you want, but it's what your mentee wants, and you're in it to help them. Don't make it into a competition to see who's the best mentor.
This is one of the most common and damaging pitfalls. Mentors often think that a loosely defined mentorship arrangement will pan out, but it almost never works. You can’t simply talk about your expectations; you must put them in writing. If legal issues, disputes, or other problems arise, you need to have a way out. You and your mentee also need to have clearly articulated mutual expectations from the get-go.
If the entrepreneurs you’re working with hold up their end of the bargain, great. But if not, you can point to their performance as a way of explaining why you’re terminating the contract. That also holds you accountable and gives your mentees a way to cut ties if for whatever reason they aren't getting the value they expected from you.
Even if you could never imagine the dynamic turning sour, it's always a possibility. With enough stress, tough decisions, and sleepless nights, even the most ironclad relationships can unravel. So as you consider taking on a mentorship role, take time to understand the depth of the commitment before you make it.
Karen Katzorke is executive director of Invest Southwest, a nonprofit that has helped startups raise more than $300 million in capital since 1992. With over 10 years of experience in the industry, she has also worked for the ASU Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development and Arizona Venture Capital Conference.