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Building successful mentoring relationships

The word ‘Mentorship’ originated in 1750, from the Greek character ‘Mentor’, who was a friend of Odysseus and adviser of Telemachus (but often actually Athene in disguise) in the “Odyssey.” It can also be seen in Sanskrit as ‘man-tar’ meaning “one who thinks,” and in Latin as ‘mon-i-tor’ meaning “one who admonishes”.

Oprah Winfrey once said; ‘Mentors are important and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship.’ Indeed, research from Stanford University shows that 80percent of CEO’s have a mentor they felt was critical for their success and that mentors are vital for entrepreneurial success as well.

In reality, how an individual defines who and what a mentor is to them depends on their WHY — why are you seeking a mentor. This has a ripple effect on your expectations of mentors, your relationship with them, and how you define a successful mentor-mentee experience.

Female entrepreneurship rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are the highest in the world however, businesses run by women are less likely than those run by men to grow because of a higher fear of business failure.

In his paper titled ‘Fostering mentorship in Agribusiness innovations’, Alex Ahiro, the coordinator of Universities, Businesses, and Research in Agricultural Innovation (UniBRAIN) commented that the ‘absence of mentoring progress for businesses is the reason why so many have failed to break even’. In particular, he stresses that ‘Africa needs a model of mentorship that inspires young people to learn from problem-solving, exploration and imagination where youth repeatedly see and hear that they are valued and important and provide a foundation for critical thinking and a lifetime love for mentorship’.

Being aware of this gap, Start-Up accelerators like ‘Tech By Her’ bring together young female entrepreneurs in tech with seasoned experts in the industry and in entrepreneurship for training, mentorship, and support, providing a platform for them to network with other leading entrepreneurs in their industry.

But how does one go about deciding what kind of mentor they need or figuring out how to build a successful mentor-mentee relationship?

Let’s start with a few of the different types of mentors there are:

The TrailBlazer

This type of mentor is typically someone from your industry who is recognized as a leader and has achieved great success in their field. These types of mentors shorten the learning curve for their mentees because they’ve been where you are, they’ve walked in your shoes and their experience can prevent you from making grave mistakes. Their insight into the machinations of the industry will take you years to figure out on your own and in some cases thousands of dollars. Depending on how you meet or approach these types of mentors, you may not have a sounding board for every little bump you encounter on the way, but an adroit contributor of business and industry knowledge that cuts through the brouhaha of business books and takes you to the heart of succeeding in the path you’ve chosen.

One of the more popular examples of this type of mentoring is between Steve Jobs and mentee Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, mentor of Bill Gates and Barbara Walters, mentor of the legendary Oprah Winfrey.

Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs

The Success Symbol

These mentor types are successful business people, not necessarily from the same industry as the mentee, but have a lot of insight into the life of an entrepreneur and some specific aspects of running a successful business. For example, a successful author might have terrific insight into brand-building through excellent storytelling, or in public speaking; a social media guru could share some insight into using digital media for marketing, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a car or an app.

The success symbol does not have to be a match made in heaven with your business or industry to be relevant to you as an entrepreneur. These mentors offer viable lessons about what it takes to overcome obstacles of all types and succeed. This is especially useful to small business entrepreneurs who usually have very localized knowledge on a particular topic or industry and could use a balanced, well-rounded mentor who helps them see through their perspectives across a vast array of experiences. They allow you to learn vicariously through their vast body of knowledge and experience. Platforms like Micromentor make it relatively simple to find such mentors by pairing business people with mentors who are success symbols from across various regions, fields, businesses, and backgrounds.

Photo by Jeff Denlea from Pixels

The Peer Mentor

It is often assumed that a mentor has to be someone significantly older and more advanced in industry experience than the mentee for there to be a successful mentoring relationship. On the contrary, the main success factor for peer mentoring is the ability of the mentor to share valuable experience in a particular domain and be capable of providing support as well as knowledge to facilitate skills transfer.

“In a peer mentoring relationship, each person involved can be both teacher and student, and both parties are empowered to shape their learning context,” explains Virginia Fraser, marketing manager at Insights Learning & Development. “Professionals receive the support they need from a peer while getting the perspective of a mentor.” Some studies have even said that peer to peer mentoring lasts longer as these relationships may have more to offer at later stages.

Photo by Christina Morillo

So, now you’ve figured out what the best mentor to have at this stage of your business is. You’ve approached them and received a resounding Yes. How do you go about building a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship with them?

As a mentee, you need humility, self-awareness, strong listening skills, and enthusiasm. Lethargic mentees will only get as much as they give. It is not the job of the mentor to get you excited about the mentorship or remind you of meetings. You need to be proactive in your approach and readily available, humble enough to see the value of their advice, however hard it is to hear.

If you’ve had a mentor before, it might help to evaluate your relationship for strengths and weaknesses, methods of mentoring that didn’t really work for you or your business, the value that particular type of mentor brought to you, and how you added value to them as well. Use that in developing a strategy for the new mentor. Reflect on your previous relationship by considering the following questions:

  1. What worked well and what would you like to keep with the new mentor
  2. What did not work well and what do you need to avoid repeating?
  3. Do you feel like you grew from that relationship and developed as an entrepreneur?
  4. What is your expectation of the new relationship?

If you’re starting a new mentorship relationship, the following 5 tips could be useful in making the most of it:

Set clear expectations and communicate them:

What do you expect from the mentorship and what do you expect from the mentor? In answering these questions, evaluate what your current pain points are and how you envisage a mentor helping to solve them. Where do you think you need support and which part of their particular strength, knowledge, or expertise will help you? It is advisable to even go as far as preparing a brief for your mentor, offering a professional summary of yourself, your business pitch, or pitch deck and why you feel their input would be beneficial to your personal or professional growth. Help them understand who you are, what you’re about, and why you need their support. This paints a clear picture and makes it easier for the mentor to formulate a plan to support you. Define your purpose for the relationship so that both your priorities and your mentors are met and let your mentor know, in a polite way, what you hope to gain.

Check-in with each other and make frequent communications a priority:

It is important to discuss and agree on how often, when, where, and how you’ll communicate with your mentor. Having an Adhoc approach to calling your mentor could easily become an inconvenience especially to very busy mentors. You also need to make it clear to your mentor how they can get in contact with you with some important information. There’s nothing worse than asking for a mentor and then being inaccessible. It would also be prudent to ask your mentor what their working hours are or when it’s most convenient to reach out to them.

To make the most of your mentorship, agree on a set time and date to meet, say weekly lunch meetings or phone calls, with allowances for contact during emergencies only. This gives you time to prepare an agenda which you can share with them. Have a clear purpose for each conversation to maximize the time you have with your mentor. They’ll appreciate the effort in keeping their time valuable and they’ll be more open to helping.

“The key is making the time to follow up with one another. Life gets busy and it can be easy to slip into old habits. Commitment to making time for each other helps keep the relationship strong.”

Joyel Crawford, Leadership Development Consultant

Define what success will look like:

The sharing and learning experience needs to have clear goals and objectives, as well as an execution plan. That plan should feature measurable steps that lead to the desired outcome as well as a clear picture of what success is to you. Are you looking to have gained a larger industry network? A clearer understanding of business processes and how to train your staff? Solid feedback into your expansion plan?

Having a clear, detailed idea of what success looks like to you will make it easier to realize when you’ve achieved it.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

Understand the difference between a mentor and a sponsor:

It is not the place of a mentor to finance your business. All too often, mentees equate the belief of a mentor in their business to them becoming investors in the business. Not only is this wrong, but it can also ruin a solid relationship. Sponsors advocate for their protégés and put their professional clout behind their sponsees. Eileen Scully, founder and CEO of The Rising Tides, adds that “A sponsor will often recommend their sponsee for projects or promotions, putting their own reputations at risk”. A sponsor may be your boss or another leader, or even a peer, that champions your work and development. A mentor is a source of guidance and advice and they are not obligated to personally finance a mentee’s dream or business unless they choose to.

Showcase your mentor’s work and show gratitude:

Saying ‘Thank You’ to a mentor is critical to a lasting relationship with your mentor. It’s even more important how you show this gratitude. If you have a trailblazer as a mentor, showing gratitude in a way that seems like name dropping on your social media page rather than sincere appreciation for their support might not be the best way to go about it. (S)He might appreciate a thoughtful LinkedIn post about his business leadership skills or on a speech he gave at an event.

Make an effort to understand your mentor, in the way you hope they come to understand you and use this knowledge in figuring out what they would appreciate as a ‘Thank You’. Make sure it means something to them and be honest about your appreciation of their help.

Mentorships are like plants. You need to invest time and energy and commit to keeping it alive. Choosing the right mentor is the first step, but it does not define your entire journey. The way you respond to advice, feedback, and support from your mentor will go a long way in improving your relationship and creating a lasting, mutually beneficial mentoring relationship.



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