Keys to Setting up an Effective Mentor Network in Your Community

Jeff Bennett
Jul 12 · 5 min read

Part 1 of this series explores selecting, recruiting, and retaining mentors.

While identifying good mentors is a critical piece of the puzzle, selecting appropriate entrepreneurs to be the mentees and then matching those mentees to mentors is also important to the success of the program.

Selecting Mentees

Recall that the University of Michigan’s 2017 report, Mentoring in Startup Ecosystems found that a growth mindset was important for identifying mentors. (See Part 1 for details.) This growth mindset was found to be an even more important factor in mentees, with the report noting “consistent evidence that mentees with a growth mindset (i.e., those who believe that successful entrepreneurs have skills that can be developed and learned) are more satisfied with the mentoring and with the entrepreneurial program more broadly. Entrepreneurial programs are therefore advised to seek growth mindset as a marker of desirable personality in mentees, and to instill the growth mindset, e.g., through introductory mentoring training and regular program reminders and tips.”

While a growth mindset is important, other character components also should be considered when selecting mentees. At Innovate Charlotte, Keith Luedeman places an emphasis on complete honesty and transparency:

“The entrepreneur has to share everything that’s going on with their business. With that unvarnished truth, the mentors are able to help. It also has to be a safe space. Whatever happens in the mentor session stays in the mentor session. So it becomes a good, honest, transparent way to share.”

The stage of the business and the entrepreneur’s passion and commitment to the venture should also be considered. Keith Luedeman shares his organization’s approach. “We look beyond the idea stage. At just the idea stage, they’re too early. You can’t help them. If they’re at $3 million revenue or more, you can’t help them, they’re on their way. We’re looking for someone who has at least one full-time founder so there’s some commitment to it. We like to see incorporation, a business plan, and starting to generate revenue, but they don’t have to have those. They can still be working on their product. As long as they’ve got a full-time employee we know that they’re going to put some passion into it.”

Matching Mentors to Mentees

It is important to identify and select both good mentors and good mentees. Both are important. But if you don’t match them up well, the results will be suboptimal. Successful programs take a methodical approach to matching mentees to mentors.

The University of Michigan survey found that most non-university mentorship programs employ a two-sided approach to matching mentors and mentees, with both indicating preferences and program administrators making the matching decisions, taking into consideration relevant expertise, experience, and mentor reputation as matching criteria.

In the Arrowhead Center’s program, Zetdi Runyan Sloan has incorporated a digital component to help optimize the matching process. Arrowhead uses a “Virtual Fireside Chat” to introduce mentors to the entrepreneurs. In that way the community is introduced to the mentor’s expertise and can get a sense of what they are like.

In the Charlotte program, they’ve incorporated a type of trial period for the match. Keith Luedeman explains. “We start with a 90-day ‘try and buy,’ and they can say, ‘Hey I’m not clicking with this company, it’s not working for me.’”

The Charlotte program also strives for equity, Luedeman adds: “In addition to matching by discipline, skill set, and industry, we also try to get balance. We started off largely with a group of white male mentors. So very intentionally we said we need to get more diverse with our companies and mentors — and we have. We’re over 50 percent females and underrepresented males. We get a mix of diversity and skill sets on a mentoring team.”

A consideration in matching is that it’s not just a one-to-one match. A key element of the MIT program is matching mentees with a team of mentors. This team mentoring aspect is seen by MIT as critical to success. Not only does it help to provide a broader set of perspectives and experiences for each mentee, but there’s a practical program management benefit as well. It accounts for the inevitable problems with scheduling busy people. As Keith Luedeman explains, “We shoot for four or five mentors per team. If one or two can’t make it to a given session, we want at least three in a mentoring session.”

Interestingly, the Michigan study identified distinct differences in how mentees and mentors wish to be matched. Both sides of the relationship prefer to choose their partner. The report found that “mentees wanted the opportunity to choose a mentor after talking with several potential candidates. In contrast, the most common matching procedure, in which the program selects the mentor, was the least preferred [by mentees].” However, when mentors were asked about the matching process, “Mentors who were able to talk with a few potential mentees prior to making a commitment report a higher quality of the mentoring relationship and greater learning compared to other matching procedures. Mentors who actively participated in mentor-mentee matching report greater satisfaction with the program.”

Mentor satisfaction, as pointed out in Part 1, is important to retaining mentors, so the importance of including mentors in the matching process shouldn’t be taken lightly. But mentees should also be included in the process. The Michigan study recommended that both mentors and mentees should be given a voice in the process.

“This result suggests that programs may benefit from giving mentors and mentees an important voice in the matching process as opposed to unilaterally imposing the match.”

Selecting mentors, mentees, and matching them are all key to an effective mentor network program. But there also need to be formal processes and program management in place to keep things running smoothly.

In Part 3 of the series, I’ll explore the importance of having a program manager, training of mentors, the importance of team mentoring, and more.


MAKING INTERSECTIONS

Read on for more insights on this ecosystem building topic:

Missed Connections: Know other voices that connect to this story? Link them in the comments!

Intersections

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Jeff Bennett

Written by

Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Builder | Cofounder & President of @SacStartup | Writer & Digital Media Content Creator

Intersections

A connecting point for ecosystem builders, founders, and partners building stronger networks for entrepreneurs. | Powered by CO.STARTERS

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