Pop culture has led us to believe that mentors come in the form of an all-knowing Yoda to our Luke Skywalker, a wise Mr. Miyagi to our Karate Kid, or a cheerful Mary Poppins to our Jane or Michael Banks.
But finding success should not be an exclusive table for two. For entrepreneurs, breaking that mentorship paradigm means it’s more of a team sport. Startup founders today need to identify a tribe of contributors to assist through specific career challenges.
Formal mentorship programs have long been part of Fortune 500 companies. Past research has shown how these programs help employees earn promotions and salary increases and continue with the company. But what’s a startup entrepreneur to do in the absence of that traditional, in-house support network?
This question will challenge increasing numbers of startup founders and executives. New business statistics released in May by the U.S. Census Bureau projected record business formations on the horizon.
As a founder and CEO, I’ve lived both sides of the mentor relationship. Learning to thrive in a fast-paced startup environment has meant identifying some tips to ensure the best outcomes for all involved.
ABANDON THE IDEA OF A LIFELONG MENTOR
No single mentor can carry you throughout your entire career. You will need to identify your village of supporters to help as your needs and the world around you evolve.
By surrounding yourself with mentors and understanding their areas of specialty, you will be able to quickly rally guidance for challenges as they arise. If I seek out five opinions for a particular question, then the last mentoring conversation is always the best because I’ve had conversations with others who helped me fine-tune my thinking around the issue at hand.
You will also begin to understand who in your support network can talk you through unformed ideas versus those who work best helping with more defined questions or goals.
The stakes evolve quickly in entrepreneurship, and it’s easy to lose focus. In those moments, it’s good to have a group of mentors to increase the likelihood that one is available for immediate support.
COMMIT TO SELF-ANALYSIS
Acknowledging weaknesses along with strengths is an important first step in identifying where you need the most help. Embrace your weaknesses rather than excusing yourself.
For instance, as my company raises new rounds of funding, I have acknowledged that I don’t have deep experience in different types of funding structures. So I’ve searched for mentors who know more about funding options to advise me.
Or perhaps your business is changing from a business-to-consumer (B2C) sales model to a business-to-business (B2B) sales model. If you’ve never sold B2B before, seek out executives with that sales background to provide input.
Ensuring you find mentors who are strong in areas where you are weak means that you will—by definition—begin to see things through a different lens.
TAKE CHARGE AND GET SPECIFIC
The burden falls on the requestor to ask a mentor for help, home in on specific areas of focus, and continue the relationship over time.
Take ownership of coordinating times and the best ways to communicate with each mentor. Some might be open to unplanned phone calls. Others may need more structure with calls at regular intervals or coffee meetings once a month. Be cognizant of your mentors’ unique styles.
Then identify a starting point for each conversation. Imagine your needs and questions are shaped like a funnel. You will need to prioritize these to share only the most pressing, top-of-funnel discussions with your mentor.
SEEK OUT DIVERSITY
There’s greater freedom in building your mentoring tribe now than ever before. You are not limited to the model of someone who is 10 years older than you working in the same industry.
By building a network with people of different genders, races, backgrounds, and ages, you will broaden your own opportunities for development, rather than having someone regurgitate the same information you could have already guessed based on your experience.
ADOPT A MENTORING PHILOSOPHY
Building a diverse pool of mentors means you will have the opportunity to give as well as receive guidance. Make yourself open and available to help in specific areas you feel confident or have deeper experience.
Being a member of the Techstars Accelerator has opened my eyes to a reciprocal relationship through which I can ask someone for advice. Techstars’ “give first” philosophy encourages founders to help each other whenever possible. My team was recently challenged to integrate a new software tool. By calling on the network, I quickly arranged a 30-minute meeting with an expert, which led to huge gains for my development team. Likewise, I try to do the same when requests for advice come my way.
The mentoring paradigm is shifting from the notion of an all-important guru to a true team sport. By changing your approach to asking for help, you’ll find a fleet of experts to grow along with you through the challenges and joys of your career in the startup landscape. It’s more complex, but worth the effort.