The 3 Basics Every Mentorship Program Must Have. (Guest piece by RITU SONI SRIVASTAVA)
Someone awesome once said this about mentorship: “The key to mentorship is to make someone more of what they already are. Not to make them more like you!”
I entered the world of entrepreneurship six plus years ago, on 11th Aug 2012 to be exact. And since then I have had the privilege of being part of many mentorship programmes. Initially as a raw startup entrepreneur and later – after I sold my first venture – as a mentor. In the course of my journey, I have realised that mentorship can mean the difference between success and failure. In fact, a good mentor can be worth his/her weight in (not gold) but a founder’s blood and sweat.
And in that vein, while some of my mentorship experiences were great and some not so great, some of them were downright hellish. And the worst part is that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. When accelerators, incubators or start-up forums organise mentorship sessions, they do so with the best of intentions. However, most of the time, these intentions fail to translate into genuine value for the start-up. And that’s just sad.
When mentorship goes bad
Most mentorship opportunities or programs are basically a business version of speed dating events. The organisers – all well-meaning souls with the best intentions – basically grab hold of the most promising start-ups they know and the most helpful mentors they know and get them into a room together on an appointed day. To interact for a scant 1-2 hours where the first hour passes in just understanding what the startup does and basic rapport building.
Most of the time, not only does it not add value to the startup. But sometimes it does them some active harm.
How, you ask? Well, here’s how. Start-up founders are generally an open-minded (can I say ‘confused’?) lot. They have a unique, potentially disruptive problem and multiple ways to solve it. And while some of them have a clear direction in their minds, a lot of them are struggling to find the answers.
In such a scenario, we often put a mentor in front of them. One who does not understand their business or problem deeply enough and gives superficial advice. This can actually be very detrimental to the health of a startup. Making this worse, is the exposure of a startup is to multiple mentors one after the other. Very often on the same day and from the same functional area. It’s a barrage of conflicting opinions and advice for the bewildered founder. And in some cases, the start-up founder is left questioning his basic direction. This can destroy momentum and create massive anxiety. Tell me that’s a good thing?
But when mentorship does good
I had the pleasure of being part of the TiE Bootcamp in 2014. This was a volunteer-run no-equity, no-fee mentorship program that absolutely changed my life! The friendships I made there with bootcamp cohort last me to this day and they are my go-to people for any startup help that I need. It was also here that I found my mentor – Kanchan Kumar – who has literally saved my sanity & my business, multiple times!
I often thought that the excellence of that program was a one-off, a coincidence. But then again recently, I had the privilege of being part of an amazingly well-structured and thought-through mentorship program at the MAN Impact Accelerator program. And my experience there is what convinced me that there is a method to this madness and spurred me to pen this blog.
Organised at the premises of the Yunus Social Business Fund in Bangalore, the MAN Impact Accelerator was directed and structured by Emil Lamprecht of Growth Mechanics and Arunima Singh from Yunus Social Business. I was a part of the Growth Mentors cohort with stalwarts like Sreeraman Thiagarajan (Founder of Agrayah Technologies), Gaurav Agarwal (VP Growth at Molekule) and Arjun Nohwar (Head APAC for Uber) and it was an experience to remember. Here are a few of the things that I learnt from this program that I would encourage mentorship programs everywhere to adopt. Now!
A. The art of startup & mentor matching
Not every mentor has the answer to every problem. And not every start-up founder will be able to vibe with every mentor.
The art of matching a start-up founder to the right mentor for help with the current major problem in the start-up journey is an art. And this art can only be achieved by a dedicated and experienced accelerator team that understands a startup’s journey and problems in and out. Also important is the fact that the accelerator team needs to have the industry experience to identify which mentor may have the right expertise to help the startup. And the connections to get those mentors to the table.
It’s not a job for interns. Or freshers. But depressingly enough, that is who most mentorship programs are run by. While I applaud the enthusiasm, it definitely does not make up for the lack of experience.
There is a vibe that happens when the right mentor is matched to the right startup. This where the mentor ‘gets’ the startup and the startup founder starts to trust the mentor to have the answers. When that relationship of empathy and trust is established, the time flies and ideas abound.
There is no criticism from the mentor’s end, only a strong desire to help. And to play to a founders strengths. And the founder responds to that with increased confidence and willingness to look at unexplored directions. That’s when the magic happens and both parties leave the table feeling like something substantial has been achieved.
B. The need for detailed startup briefing
Every mentorship program I have ever been through, typically sends the mentor a brief on the start-ups that they will be mentoring. Most mentors don’t read the brief. And even if they do, they skim. And so most mentors turn up for the program, typically planning to wing it. This is obviously not a good thing. And even if they have gone through the brief in detail, it would not really help.
A brief on a startup is generally about what the startup does and who the founders are. It rarely reveals where they are on their journey or the issues that they are struggling with at the moment that they need help with.
The MAN Impact Accelerator did this beautifully. Not only were we briefed on the startup’s business and founders, we were also given us deep insights into where the founders were in their journey and what they needed to take them to the next level. It was literally a brief for the mentor to add value because it identified exactly what we needed to target and the output we needed to generate by the end of that session. It brought tangibility to the session, an objective that united both the startup and the mentor. And allowed us to avoid the getting-to-know-each-other time wasting that typically eats up half the mentorship session.
There was another very special thing that the MAN Impact Accelerator team did. They used their insights into the founder personalities, to identify potential pitfalls that mentors could steer around. And also found ways to break through various mental barriers that the startup founders had. Those barriers which were preventing them from moving forward and gaining value from the mentors experience. This is a rare skill which I saw Emil Lamprecht deploy to great effect. Mind blown. Respect!
C. The criticality of program structuring
This was an aspect of mentorship programs that I had never seen before. Before the program started, we were part of a mentor on-boarding session where we were given a brief list of Dos and Donts. Simple yet deeply effective guidelines on how to conduct ourselves, guide startups and add maximum value in the shortest possible time. Easy, sensible and fairly obvious. You would think so, right? I have never seen anyone else do it!
The Handoff! This was absolutely my favourite part of the mentorship program structuring. And had to do with how they ensured that successive mentorship sessions built consecutive value for the founders, instead of conflicting with the previous mentors work & inputs. In addition to the startup briefing, every mentor was briefed on the work/advice/inputs offered by the previous mentor and made in turn to handoff the output of his/her session to the next mentor. This ensured that there was a cohesive structure to the inputs given to the founder and that every session built upon the last. Simply beautiful!
In conclusion, I think it’s commendable on the part of accelerators and incubator programs everywhere to put in the efforts they do to help mentor startups. But it is critical that it be done the right way, otherwise it can do more harm than good!