Part 1: Selecting, Recruiting, and Retaining Mentors for your Mentor Network

Keys to Setting up an Effective Mentor Network in Your Community

Jeff Bennett
Jul 2 · 7 min read

Few would argue that entrepreneurship is easy. After all, nine out of ten startups fail. Entrepreneurs face enormous odds to beat that statistic and succeed. There is so much to know when launching a business that it’s impossible to have all of the knowledge and experience needed to be successful.

To address this challenge, many communities have established mentorship networks that match experienced mentors with startup founders. It makes sense. If entrepreneurs can tap into the experience and knowledge of mentors, they improve their chances of avoiding mistakes that might kill their business.

Mentoring has come to be seen as essential to the success of startups, but there is a lot involved in setting up an effective and impactful mentor program in a community. There are many dynamics at play in a successful mentor program. For ecosystem builders looking to establish a mentor network, knowing where to start and how to do it can be a daunting task.

If you research entrepreneurial mentor programs you’ll quickly be referred to MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) model. Founded in 2000, VMS has become the gold standard for mentoring programs. Jerome Smith, Co-director of MIT VMS and a member of the Outreach Training Program team, outlined the guiding pillars of the program:

  • a set of guiding principles that ensures unbiased, unconflicted behavior
  • a team mentoring approach with groups of three to four mentors per entrepreneur
  • a formal process that wraps around it all

Many ecosystem builders I’ve talked to have experience with the MIT program and highly recommend it. But licensing the MIT program requires resources that some communities may not be ready to commit. Still, even those who don’t yet have the resources to license the MIT program tend to adopt the principles of the model in their own programs.

In addition to chatting with the folks at MIT’s program, I chatted with ecosystem builders who run mentor network programs, both VMS and non-VMS, to learn what they view as the key characteristics of a successful mentorship program.

In this series of articles, I’ll explore the key characteristics of mentor networks, beginning with selecting, recruiting, and retaining mentors. In following articles, I’ll explore selecting mentees, matching mentors and mentees, and essentials of managing mentor programs.

Selecting, Recruiting, and Retaining Mentors

An important distinction to make up front is the difference between mentors and advisors or coaches. In general, advisors and coaches tend to lend advice on a more ad hoc basis, while mentors have a more dedicated, long-term relationship with an entrepreneur or venture. While advisors and coaches can play an important role in assisting founders, the focus here is on mentors, and more specifically, mentor network programs for a community.

A 2017 analysis by the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Mentoring in Startup Ecosystems, (Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, David J. Brophy, Thomas Jensen, Melanie Milovac, and Evgeny Kagan) surveyed and analyzed 33 programs across the United States. Their findings show that “mentoring is fundamental to founder education.” The report also found a wide range of practices in setting up and running mentorship programs and found that “effective methods of mentor recruiting, selection, training, matching, and management are lacking.” (p.27)

Mentor Characteristics

It should go without saying that selecting good mentors is critical to a successful mentor program. But what are the characteristics of a good mentor and how do you find, recruit, vet, and keep good mentors in your program?

It may be tempting to evaluate and select mentors based solely on their expertise and experience. But in the research, as well as my own surveys, there is a consensus that the motivations and attitudes of mentors are paramount. Specific personality traits, mindsets, and communication skills are critically important.

The University of Michigan findings showed that, in addition to industry knowledge, expertise, or experience, the most effective members had true empathy and a “growth mindset,” defined as a belief that most abilities can be learned, versus the belief that one is either born an entrepreneur or isn’t. According to the study, “the most sought-after qualities in a mentor are: being trustworthy, empathetic, a good listener, and an effective communicator.” It further found that “whether a mentor is expected to be caring toward mentees is critical in accepting mentors into the program.” (p. 8–9)

The report summarized an ideal mentor as someone who:

1) inspires curiosity

2) challenges assumptions and expectations (gives feedback)

3) guides through asking probing questions

4) is honest and direct about what he or she doesn’t know

5) is eager to learn along with the mentee

Keith Luedeman is the executive director for Innovate Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of over 90 organizations that have been trained through the MIT VMS Outreach Training Program. Luedeman elaborated:

“What we look for is somebody who is going to be able to uphold the values, not somebody who is looking to make an investment in a hot company and then jump. We’re looking for people who really want to help. They tend to be older. They tend to be more experienced. They’ve run a startup before.“

Even programs that don’t license MIT’s VMS program take care to identify desired characteristics and traits in their mentors. Zetdi Runyan Sloan runs several of the entrepreneurial programs for New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico, including its mentorship program. She has found that mentors need to identify with a set of shared values and have a desire to give back. “In order to work, there has to be an affinity, a connection to your organization. If that’s not there it’s hard to engage the mentors.”

In addition to traits of empathy and giving back, Zetdi has also found that it’s important that the mentors are reflective of the entrepreneurs they’ll be working with. “They need to see someone who looks like them.”

The MIT VMS program guards closely against mentors who are in it for their own benefit. A founding tenet of the MIT program included a mechanism to get volunteer mentors who would agree to be unconflicted and unbiased in their mentoring of the entrepreneurs. Their Statement of Principles “outlines their responsibilities, guard against conflicts of interest, and controls financial involvement with the entrepreneurs and their ventures.” All participating mentors must sign the statement in order to participate.

Taking the time to explicitly define the characteristics, values, and attributes that you desire in your mentors will guide your recruitment efforts and help to motivate and retain mentors.

Recruiting Mentors

Having a set of values, guidelines, and characteristics in mind for your mentors is a key starting point. But once you have this defined, how do successful programs identify and recruit their mentors?

For Keith Luedeman, it started with awareness. “After we generated a bit of buzz around the program and did some press, people raised their hands and wanted to join. Then we asked the good mentors who they could bring in, and that has taken on a life of its own.”

Igor Gorlatov is the operations manager for the Innovate Charlotte mentor program. He has found that once a few key mentors are identified, they are able to attract more that are like them.

“Once you can get a few people like that they start to bring more people like that. If you attract the wrong people into the organization they attract more of the wrong people. I think we were fortunate enough to attract a very strong cohort.”

In New Mexico, Zetdi Runyan Sloan relies heavily on her advisory council, tapping into their network to fill gaps in the mentor network. She also taps into her alumni network. “Most university alums are looking for a way to give back and many are looking to engage.”

The University of Michigan analysis found that programs primarily use a mix of referrals and alumni networks to recruit, though a small number recruit via online applications on a website.

Retaining and Motivating Mentors

Once you’ve identified and recruited the mentors in your program, you want to be able to retain them and keep them motivated. Program managers know that it’s important to the success of the mentorship program to retain their mentors. Keith Luedeman explained, “We want the mentors to be fulfilled so they tell people, recruit people, and then they keep showing up.”

Critical to this is an onboarding process and setting expectations. According to the Michigan study, “One of the most critically important factors is that program administrators must be very clear and explicit about the time and effort required of mentors. Brief interviews of prospective mentors (by program administrators or volunteer senior mentors) is a best practice.”

Zetdi Runyan Sloan has incorporated this in the Arrowhead Center’s program. During onboarding they talk with prospective mentors about expectations, provide an overview of the program, and talk about the quarterly review process they have incorporated.

Another key element Runyan Sloan has included in her program is an appreciation component. “We’re continually looking for ways to make sure the mentors know they’re appreciated. We host receptions throughout the year to show appreciation.”

Keith Luedeman has found success in convening the mentors in the program on a regular basis. “We have a monthly mentor meeting where the mentors get together, talk about challenges, hear what’s going on in the other companies. So we’re bonding and building camaraderie.”

Jerome Smith at MIT VMS summarized the importance of retaining mentors: “If the outflow equals the inflow, you don’t have a sustainable program.”

While selecting, recruiting, and retaining good mentors is critical for a mentor network to be successful, the work doesn’t end there. Of equal importance is selecting appropriate mentees as well as thoughtful and intentional matching of mentors and mentees.

Part 2 of the series explores selecting mentees and matching mentors to mentees.


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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