Building Effective Mentoring Relationships

Eva Yao, Ph.D.
Sep 25, 2017

Mentors can be found both in and outside of work. Mentoring is considered a positive activity that allows individuals to learn from role models and with the guidance of a more experienced person. Many employers thus establish formal mentoring programs as part of their human capital growth strategy. Mentors are also an integral part of startup communities, adding tremendous value to accelerators as well as entrepreneurship programs, and elevating the skills, knowledge, and capabilities of the entire community. Hence they are relevant not just for the entrepreneurs and startups, but also for other participants in an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Mentorship can take on many forms, with different participants, and with different developmental relationships. For example, peer mentoring, group mentoring (e.g., one mentor for a group of mentees such as a team of co-founders), reverse mentoring, and technology-facilitated-mentoring (such as the service offered by Turtlewise). Mentoring can also be a one-time interaction in which one learns from another. One might never have any mentor in a traditional sense, but one may still encounter individuals who, at the right time, at the right place, offer importance, actionable advice.

Denver Startup Week 2017 presents unique opportunities for participants to engage in pre-arranged group and one-on-one mentoring sessions and to meet peers as well as experienced professionals or entrepreneurs. It is a good time to ponder over what can make mentoring relationship (that lasts more than one interaction) more effective and fulfilling for both the mentor and the mentee.

For both mentors and mentees:
• Be mindful of the similarities and differences between the mentor and the mentee, including but not limited to demographic characteristics (e.g., age, race, gender, ethnicity, national origin), human capital characteristics (e.g., education, experience, career stage), personality, and other deep, not easily detectable differences (e.g., values, beliefs, personal history, cultural background). These factors affect how mentor and mentee perceive each other and set expectations. For example, women or minority mentees might not be able to apply the same strategies effectively that worked well for their male or white mentors. It does not diminish the value of understanding these strategies, both parties simply need to be aware of the applicability of them and be creative in the mentoring process.

• Establish agreement on the expectations of the mentoring relationship. For example, goals of the engagement; format, frequency, and length of interactions. Having clear upfront guidelines provides both parties opportunities to build trust with time. Of course, these expectations evolve as the mentee(s) grow and change. It is nonetheless important to have an initial set of expectations and adjust with time. It is certainly possible that a mismatch between the mentor-mentee(s) or changing situations of either party may lead to the dissolving of the mentoring relationship.

For mentees:
1. Understand mentor psychology. Mentors are naturally more interested in mentees with great potential who are “teachable.” Mentors sometimes—if not always—evaluate the return on their time investment and on their effort to introduce mentees to valuable contacts. Research suggest willingness to learn, honesty, confidence, ability, and competence are all desirable mentee characteristics. With mentees that are highly motivated with good potential, there is a greater chance that mentors not only can have a greater sense of satisfaction (“I helped this very successful person”), they can also anticipate future benefits from a valuable mentor-mentee relationship (e.g., successful mentees can connect mentors to other valuable contacts).

2. Diversify your mentor network and mentoring experience. In addition to unique characteristics, each individual brings with him/her relational knowledge—how people in different roles should behave and what expectations are common in certain (such as mentoring) relationships. Mentors (and mentees) thus have their own lenses through which to interpret situations. It is therefore extremely important to broaden your scope of role models and expose yourself to various paths of success so that you establish a balanced view of how a person (or a company) can develop over time. In other words, it is beneficial to include both prevalent and unique success cases (e.g., a common path of success from a white male mentor vs. a path less travelled by a black female mentor). A rich understanding of career developmental paths affords you creativity in carving out your own growth trajectory. In other words, take an eclectic approach in growing your knowledge about the diversity in mentors that you can choose from even though you might only be able to engage with one or two mentors.

3. Be proactive. Seek out individuals who might be a suitable mentor for you. It is OK if you do not find a suitable mentor right away—there is always something we can learn from another person. If the timing isn’t right or if the mentor is a mismatch regarding expertise, interests, beliefs about mentoring relationships and so on, it is best to let it go and find more suitable ones. A negative mentoring experience can be damaging to both parties beyond just a stifled relationship.

4. Provide timely feedback. Like mentees, mentors are also eager to know if their mentoring effort made a difference and if they might need to do things differently. In the absence of outcomes from a developing situation, mentee feedback is the only result mentors can rely on to assess their time investment. Thus, it is extremely important for mentees to update their mentors on their progress, experiments, setbacks, reflections. Such update doesn’t need to be long. A succinct, mentor-specific (a.k.a., customized) message will do. Startup teams often are lost in their frantic pace and forgot to maintain this part of their social network. Think of this activity as dinner-time-chat: family members having a set time to update each other on what happened to them at school, at work, or at home. This habit of updating the mentors also forces the mentee to reflect on progress. In addition, it contributes to building a positive mentoring relationship.

For mentors:
1. Understand your own assumptions about mentoring. Because of their knowledge, skills, experience, and network that are valuable to the mentees, mentors are in a position of power. They may be engaged in judging the mentee constantly through their own relational knowledge lens. Awareness of one’s preferences for mentoring relationships and what one is most knowledgeable about (e.g., best strategy when negotiating with investors) can help mentors make better decisions about whom to mentor and the extent to which their advice is applicable.

2. Seek first to understand. Understanding a mentee’s (or a startup team’s) developmental stage and current goals and preferences is critical for a mentor to decide if she or he will enter the mentoring relationship, and once she or he does, if and how to provide what advice. This initial phase of preparation saves time for both the mentor and the mentee. This is especially important if the mentee is rather inexperienced—the mentor can steer the interaction to first uncover where the mentee stands and his or her current goals and preferences.

3. Aiming at providing food-for-thought. Your advice is but one of many mentees receive. Mentees often face a plethora of choices and arguments. Depending on their own decision preference and specific situation, your advice might not be what they decide to follow. Don’t be offended. It does not mean that your investment of time with the mentee is wasted.

4. Hone your own emotional intelligence skills. High quality interpersonal connections characterized by one’s caring and concern for another without emphasizing the social exchange aspect of the relationship can yield positive psychological and behavioral outcomes such as resilience, vitality, and greater life satisfaction. Mentors have the ability to create that in the mentee through practicing patience, empathy, and positive framing of situations for the mentee. This is not to deny the long-term benefit (“return-on-investment”) for the mentor should the mentee develops as expected, but this focus on the mentee’s wellbeing without worrying about any downside requires the mentor to first buy into the possibility that a less instrumental approach (i.e., less focus on long-term “payback” from the mentees) to mentoring can yield great results for both the mentor and the mentee, and second to become highly skilled in reading emotions and responding in supportive manners.

In sum, to have a productive and invigorating mentoring experience for both the mentors and the mentees, one needs to develop self and other-knowledge, adopt a broader view of where each party sits in the overall community network, and practice emotional intelligence. The skills in being a mentor as well as a mentee are highly transferrable to other spheres of life even when no clear mentoring relationship exists. Your own learning and seeing the difference you can make in another’s life are well worth the effort.

Chandler, D. E., Kram, K. E., & Yip, J. (2011). An ecological systems perspective on mentoring at work: A review and future prospects. Academy of Management Annals, 5(1), 519-570.

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