Part 3: Program Management for Your Mentor Network
Keys to Setting up an Effective Mentor Network in Your Community
Thank you to those who generously committed their time, expertise, and guidance through this series: Jerome Smith, Co-Director of MIT VMS, Zetdi Runyan Sloan, Director of Arrowhead Accelerator Programs, Keith Luedeman, Executive Director for Innovate Charlotte, and Igor Gorlatov, Operations Manager for Innovate Charlotte.
Part 1 and Part 2 of the series explored selecting and matching mentors and mentees. While these aspects are important, they are not enough in themselves to make an effective mentor network. To be successful, there needs to be a formal program management system in place underpinning it all to ensure things run smoothly, as well as people and processes to monitor, administer, and assist mentors and mentees.
Recall that in Part 1 Jerome Smith of the MIT’s Outreach Training Program team outlined the guiding pillars of their program. In 19 years of running the program, he’s learned that there needs to be an organization in the community that has the operational infrastructure and resources to manage the program.
Key elements of successful program management include having a dedicated program or operations manager, a training program to train mentors, and processes in place to handle typical issues that arise.
The Importance of a Program Manager
Running a mentor program takes a lot of work. Organizations that run successful programs recognize the need for a dedicated program or operations manager to keep things running smoothly and to help the mentors and mentees focus on the mentoring rather than other distractions. In fact, it’s so important, that MIT requires both a program director and an operations manager to license their mentorship program.
In Charlotte’s program, Keith Ludeman fills the program director role while Igor Gorlatov fills the operations manager role. Gorlatov describes the aspects of the program that he is responsible for: “I’m responsible for all aspects of the program, starting from recruiting, training, onboarding, and organizing mentors.” Gorlatov is also responsible for evaluating the program and implementing changes. He uses case studies to identify lessons learned and integrate them into the program.
In the Arrowhead Center’s program, Zetdi Runyan Sloan has a network manager who manages the relationships between mentors and mentees, gets feedback from both mentors and mentees, administers the meetings, participates on calls, and more.
The University of Michigan report found that formal structuring of a program impacts its success. Part of that structuring is training the mentors. Finding quality people to be mentors is critical to an effective mentor network. But mentors who have the desired characteristics, attitudes, experience, and expertise may not have experience being a mentor. For this reason, an integral component of MIT’s VMS program is 2 ½ days of training, including classroom curriculum and immersive, experiential mentoring sessions.
The University of Michigan report found that many programs provide mentor training: “While most university programs do not provide formal training for mentors, half of the non-university programs do, perhaps because of the focus on financial interests of the program itself (many of which retain an equity fee in the mentored company). The training (if offered) typically covers orientation, including program roles and responsibilities and best practices, such as creating a schedule with one’s mentee.” They further found that “formal training is associated with improved mentee satisfaction with the program.”
Managing Problem Mentors
Despite rigorous principles and vetting standards, many programs will eventually find a need to remove a mentor. The issue came up in the University of Michigan report as well as with people I interviewed.
The University of Michigan report found that some programs include a formal process for mentor removal, while many don’t. “Some programs have explicit rules concerning removal of a mentor. In our survey, approximately half of the programs have removed at least one mentor from the list of invitees. There are many reasons to remove a mentor, but the most frequent ones are lack of engagement and ‘inappropriate behavior’ (broadly defined). Some examples of these reasons include the mentor “being completely unresponsive to the team,” “not acting in the best interest of the founder,” and “wanting to take advantage of the mentee in any way.”
To account for the possibility of needing to remove mentors, a best practice is to start the program from the beginning with a process in place for mentor removal. Zetdi Runyan Sloan shared how their program deals with removing mentors and offered her advice:
“During onboarding talk about expectations, provide an overview and talk about the quarterly review process. When jerks are detected, thank them for their time and service and let them know that they’re not the right fit.”
Part of the responsibility of her network managers is to serve as an “onsite jerk detector.”
Program Support and Online Tools
The University of Michigan report found that though they’re not widely used, online tools can significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of mentor programs. Administrative support using online tools for tasks such as scheduling, reminders, and tips, were positively associated with program satisfaction. The report found that programs should focus more on enabling closer collaboration between mentee and mentor. Defining and implementing a suite of tools to enable this closer collaboration will help ensure a program runs smoothly and efficiently. The report states, “One cost-effective way to improve collaboration may be for programs to invest in better online systems and resources (that are currently limited in many programs) to facilitate better matching and more productive exchange between the parties.”
At the Arrowhead Center, Zetdi Runyan Sloan was quick to recommend an online scheduling tool called Acuity Scheduling, which not only helps with scheduling mentors and mentees, but also shows mentees who the mentors are, lists their specialties and availability, and gives Runyan a good snapshot of what’s going on in the network.
At Innovate Charlotte, Gorlatov and his team have settled on a suite of widely available tools for project management, document storage, and calendaring. “We use Basecamp, Google docs, Calendly, and Doodle,” said Gorlatov.
There are a wide variety of online tools for project management, document storage, and calendaring. When setting up your program, consider your expected tasks, workflow, and existing tools used in your organization to help select a tool set that will work best for your program.
As this series of articles demonstrates, there’s a lot involved in setting up and running an effective mentor network in your startup community. I hope the keys identified in these articles will help you get started with your mentor network program.
The resourcing and staffing requirements to run a program like this can be significant. Many communities may not yet have the community support or resources to set up a program as outlined in this series. With that in mind, I thought I’d conclude by highlighting two other mentoring resources, which, though not as robust as a fully managed mentor network, can still benefit your community.
SCORE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and a resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) that provides free business mentoring services to prospective and established small business owners in the United States. SCORE uses more than 10,000 active and retired business executives and entrepreneurs in over 300 communities across the United States. In many communities SCORE tends to be more focused on ‘Main Street’ and early stage businesses. Even if that doesn’t match your focus, it’s worth investigating your local chapter to get to know the local set of mentors available. While it may not be managed as formally as the mentor networks described in these articles, ecosystem builders should be sure to include SCORE as a valuable resource to the entrepreneurs in their community.
A second government affiliated mentor resource is the Small Business Development Center, known as the SBDC. A program of the SBA, nearly 1,000 local SBDC centers across the country help entrepreneurs by providing no-cost business consulting and low-cost training to help new entrepreneurs realize the dream of business ownership and assist existing businesses to remain competitive in an ever-changing global economy. As with SCORE, the offerings at local SBDC centers may vary by region and community, but they’re another valuable advising and consulting resource for entrepreneurs that ecosystem builders should make sure to promote in their community.
Leveraging the experience and knowledge of mentors can add great value to the entrepreneurs in your community by improving their chances of success. If you have the necessary resources and commitment in your community, I hope you’re inspired to convene them and start designing a mentor network. Even if you lack that level of resources, I encourage you to make your entrepreneurs aware of other programs like SCORE and SBDC.
Read on for more insights on this ecosystem building topic:
- MIT Venture Mentoring Service (VMS)
- Mentoring in Startup Ecosystems, The University of Michigan Ross School of Business, (Sanchez-Burks, Jeffrey; Brophy, David J.; Kagan, Evgeny)
- SCORE “Find a Mentor” Program
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