If there’s one irreplaceable asset that your startup might have, it would be your mentor. Having a really good mentor can help you in ways that would normally take your months or even years to do. And it’s because they give you advice based on their experiences that can help you avoid making mistakes that a typical novice on the field would make. Having one is great, but just having one (or even more) is not enough. You need to know how to extract the most out of them.
Think of the interaction with a mentor like a web search, or perhaps a book search in a library. There are things you must know and do before you get the right – accurate and adequate results.
Know what you are looking for
Let’s say you wanted to read a book, but are not very clear about what you want to read – what subject you want to read, what topic within that subject, whose viewpoints, etc., and so, you type in “book” in the library search system. Do you expect to find what you were looking for? (Try that with Google. Type in “website” in the search bar and the chances of finding a website of your interest is pretty slim, almost next to impossible.)
You have to really know what you are looking for if you want to search for answers. A mentor’s mind is like that search system, but unless you know what you want, there not much sense that the mentor can make for you.
Drill down to specifics
Okay, so you want to know more about strategies for your business, great! “Oh, dear mentor, please tell me about strategies for business.” Chances are that the request will, as Google search result would, make your mentor start all the way from basics, “What is a strategy?” (Of course, your mentor, in all likelihood, would be drilling down for more details on what you seek.)
Instead of doing 20 questions with your mentor where your mentor has to figure out your question and in the process wasting a lot of time, do the ‘drill down’ exercise yourself. Let’s try that right now (it’s a crude example, but it’s more realistic that you might imagine):
“I want to know more about strategies for my business?” (To achieve what?)
“I want to figure out a strategy to grow my business?” (In what sense?)
“I want to figure out a strategy to make more products?” (Produce more or make new products?)
“I want to figure out a way to produce more of the products we already have?” (Do you have constraints?)
“I want to figure out a way to produce more without expanding my production line or hiring more people?” (Now we getting somewhere… what are you willing to do for that?)
“I want to figure out an optimal strategy for increasing production without decreasing my bottom-line (reduce profits/increase costs)?” (The only way to do that is by improving efficiencies of your production line, so…)
“I want to figure out strategies to improve the efficiency of the production line to produce more, capture the markets and grow my business?” (I can help you with that!)
Make a really specific ask
Most often, people want to help others. The only time when they are not enthusiastic about helping others out is when they are unsure about what is it that they would need to do. Mentors are the same. They want to help you, they really do, but a vague or ambiguous ask is going to scare them away.
Once you drill down to what you want, make a very specific ask and be nuanced about the information you provide or seek. Here’s an example of a snippet of the conversation or email:
“Hi Ravi, I want to figure out strategies to improve the efficiency of the production line to produce more, capture the markets and grow my business? Could you help me determine which methodology – six sigma or TPM, would be the best approach? Would you have time to discuss this with me on Monday morning at 9am? I could meet you at your office.”
You will need to do the groundwork, always
One of the worst mistakes I have seen entrepreneurs make is to expect the mentors to do some of the work for them. Listen up, they are not going to do any of the work and you would be immensely stupid if you expect them to do so.
Here are few things entrepreneurs make the mistake of expecting their mentors to do, using the example we have been using so far:
- Buy or supply reading learning materials (books or links on six sigma or TPM)
- Learn something new just to make you understand
- Learn new ways of explaining things to you
- Calculate the pros and cons of each method
- Create or test hypotheses for you (in other words, help you define and execute a pilot project)
- Identify resources for you (if not already known to them or not in their network)
- Speak to people or represent you
- Give you ready-made answers
A mentor is someone who shares her experiences and imparts the wisdom from those experiences. She is there only to show you the possible options available to you. She may guide you, but it’s not her role to carry you through the door.
Do not make the mistake of making your mentors do more than give guidance; if you do you will only eventually erode the compassion and trust that she has placed on you.
These are not the be-all, end-all of mentor relationships (management). These are some things that, if you do, you will have a healthy relationship with and make the most out of your mentor.
Ravi Warrier (@raviwarrier), COO, Spark10