CC Image, credit Manuel Schmalstieg

The mutual value in mentoring & why I do it…

For the past ten years I’ve sought good advice from high-performing, knowledgeable people in relation to projects and businesses that I’ve been working on. I don’t necessary take all of it, and it doesn’t always lead to direct implementation or a change in strategy, but I do always give it some consideration.

Since we’re shaped by our experiences, inevitably our decision-making rests on the breadth and quality of analysis that we’re exposed to.

We live and die by our own decisions, but we grow and shrink based on our willingness to listen to the input of others. Therein lies the value of my mentors.

As I moved from one venture to another in my own career, gaining experience in different areas and industries, I began to get approached by individuals, early-stage founders and companies in relation to questions or problems that they were grappling with. First for advice around leaving the law (I started my career as a corporate lawyer), and then in relation to ideation and product development for startups, market analysis, fundraising and go-to-market strategy.

Pretty much anyone approached to mentor others will do so gladly the first few times – since everyone enjoys a good ego boost. But sometimes the willingness to donate time, energy and insight can take a back seat to the pressures of life or business. Which is a shame, as both mentors and mentees have an awful lot to gain from these relationships. As much as we can, I believe we should always seek to help – as much to benefit ourselves as those doing the asking. Here’s why…

You will learn a lot

In many cases, just as much as I can help out as a mentor, so the mentee(s) can help me. Perhaps not directly, as the impetus and expectation will likely be on me to advise (good mentors resist the urge to go charging in and do so, as Fred Destin shrewdly points out), but the exposure alone to what they are working on can be illuminating.

Perhaps you’ll gain exposure to an industry you haven’t worked in before, or work through problems and scenarios that are alien to you. That exposure will give your analysis greater range and context, and help to shape your future strategies in similar areas.

It will do a lot for your personal growth

If not powered by networks, our planet is at least kept spinning on its axis by them. You will have benefitted from connections made as a result of your network many times, and for many people, that introduction is a huge step on the way to the next milestone with their company or project. I’ve benefitted hugely from people willing to make introductions for me in the past — and I continue to do so.

Given that I can help people in the same way, I feel a responsibility to do so. And doubtless you can do so too, even if you don’t think that your network is that strong. You can think of this as paying it forward, but for most of us beneficiaries of introductions and connections in the past, we’ve still got a way to go until we’ve paid off our existing debt!

You can make things easier for others

Why do we build great products and tools? For some it’s to benefit ourselves, for others it’s to make money, but for many (and certainly on some level) it’s borne out of a desire to make things easier for others. Mentoring is a service, and just like a website builder or cloud-based doc repository, it makes things easier for others.

Think of the mentee as this junior gymnast; as mentor, you’re the rest of the kids. By offering your experience, concerns, questions and advice, you can make things easier for others, or help them to find ways through their blockers. Personally, I like to help people — and I bet you do too. Mentoring is a social good, and you can’t have too many of them.

You’re supporting your local ecosystem

By engaging as a mentor, you’re contributing to your local ecosystem — you’re helping to build something that’s bigger than you or your company. If you’re in a small-market ecosystem, the relative value that you can add is even greater and you’re in the enviable position of being able to take an influential role in developing it. And it goes without saying that we all stand to benefit from the growth and success of our environment and communities. Startup ecosystems are not like casinos: if the house wins, we all win.

You’ll be skilling up

Careers are ever-evolving. The projects that I’m working on are continually changing, and personally I don’t always know the direction I’ll be going in. Sure, I have key competencies and elements of industry focus, but in the last decade I’ve work in financial services, corporate law, F&B, EdTech, PropTech, SportsTech and FinTech. Each of those experiences has been eye-opening, and it goes without saying that the less you know to start with, the more you will learn during a project.

A mentoring relationship is similar. Many of the individuals or companies that approach me work in areas in which I don’t have a wealth of experience. They don’t need me to provide expertise regarding the things that they already know; they want me to help them out with areas that they are not familiar with. And that’s fine by me, as I’ll broaden my horizons to topics and skill-sets that may prove very useful in the future. If learning is your currency, you’ll get a lot from mentoring.

What’s more, the type of skills that make you a good mentor (and that as a mentor, you should be looking to perfect) also prepare you fabulously well for all sorts of other professional situations. Need to manage employees and teams? Learning how to input intelligently, provide constructive advice and build effective rapport with people from diverse backgrounds and professional functions are all great skills that you will need develop in order to be an effective mentor. Working in user research or product development? Need to evaluate features or entire business cases? Hopefully you’re a great listener with a laser eye for isolating the key assumptions that underpin a product; someone who knows which metrics to evaluate and where/how to get the data as fast as possible. But if you could use a little work on these skills, mentoring will allow you to continually exercise and improve them, whilst potentially opening your eyes to lines of enquiry that will work wonders with your own products. And maybe you’re just not that charismatic and could do with improving your personal interactions? By sharing your insight regarding the things that you are good at, you can work on your own shortcomings in a forum where everyone gains.

The 21st century professional environment requires that we’re perennially skilling-up, and engaging as a mentor is an excellent way to do this. Just ask Phil Libin, cofounder of Evernote, who says that mentoring new entrepreneurs ultimately helped him become a better CEO.

You can relate

More than anything, if you qualify as a desirable mentor for a particular person or company, the chances are that you will understand — or at least be able to relate — to what they are going through. Particularly in the case of early stage startups, challenges are intense and experiences are unique. You won’t have experienced exactly what they are going through, but no doubt you’ve been beaten, battered and debilitated yourself before. And importantly, you’ll have been praised, cheered and commended too. You’re like the morning-trekker heading back to the carpark as the afternoon-trekkers head out — you can provide the context and calibration to make sure that they succeed. So help them.

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