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Understanding the science and art of engaging advisors and mentors

Madanmohan Rao
20th Jan 2013
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Consultants, advisors and mentors play a significant but relatively less researched role in businesses and startups. Some recent books on the topic include “The Executives’ Guide to Consultants” by David Fields and “Manager’s Guide to Mentoring” by Curtis Crawford (I will be reviewing them next; see my reviews of other books for entrepreneurs here).

TiE Bangalore recently hosted a panel discussion on “The Role of Advisors in Growing Your Business,” featuring Sapna Chandiramani (CEO and Founder, Bizhobnob), Arathi Kuppu (Founder, Cherish Maternity) and Shradha Sharma (CEO and Founder, Yourstory Media). The audience included a mix of entrepreneurs and mentors as well.

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The panel was convened by WEConnect International. Moderated by VC and mentor Sanjay Anandram, the panelists addressed a range of issues such as defining the roles of suitable mentors and advisors, identifying them, providing compensation, and managing organisational growth.

Here are my Top Ten takeaways from the discussion and debates:

1. What are the differences between consultants, advisors and mentors?

A consultant is a paid service provider, engaged through a transactional arrangement for specific tasks and projects. An advisor has expertise in organisational or functional issues, and the relationship is less tightly coupled than a consultant; the engagement is often for tactical issues, say for the next 3-5 years, in an episodic manner. For specific processes and skills, business coaches can also be roped in.

A mentor takes a holistic look at an entrepreneur and his/her company; the focus is more on philosophy, ethics and strategy over the long term. Mentors are often roped in during times of growth or crisis for an entrepreneur -- addressing personal as well as professional life, emotional and intellectual issues.

All such resources help bring in external knowledge and help entrepreneurs avoid reinventing the wheel.

2. What is the role of the mentor?

The mentor helps the entrepreneur with issues of the Big Picture, thinking ahead, finding work-life balance, and developing expertise and confidence in a range of activities (eg. dealing with the emotional challenges of firing an employee, and even managing spousal tensions). Mentors should be able and willing to extend themselves beyond normal working hours to meet the needs of the entrepreneur.

The mentor helps in capacity building and personal development of the entrepreneur, so that in turn leads to business growth. The mentor’s job is not to teach the entrepreneur how to do things, but help the entrepreneur learn how to do things. The mentor should also help spell out when and how the arrangement may need to be exited if necessary.

3. What are the qualities of a good mentor?

A mentor should have empathy, humility, a giving nature, transparency, trust, belief, experience, frankness, clarity, and broad and deep industry connections. A mentor need not be an expert in the same domain as the entrepreneur, but should have good overall business and entrepreneurship experience. A mentor is a ‘great human being,’ and is someone whom an entrepreneur may also want to be like in 10 years or so.

It can help an entrepreneur if the mentor has also been an entrepreneur and is ‘self-made,’ and share lessons on successes as well as failures. However, even managers in large companies can be mentors to entrepreneurs, especially on issues of dealing with growth and scale; they too have gone through ups and downs in life, though perhaps of a different nature than first-generation entrepreneurs.

4. What is required of the entrepreneur in dealing with the mentor?

Entrepreneurs should develop skills in introspection and analysing their own growth, to understand when and how a mentor should be identified and engaged. Entrepreneurs should be fully open and transparent and confide in the mentor in order to get the most out of the relationship; this calls for emotional maturity and even ‘emotional nakedness’ in communication with the mentor.

The entrepreneurs should not look to mentors for direct answers, but be prepared to develop the answers on their own with guidance from mentors. Entrepreneurs should also respect the inputs from the mentor, though the final decision will be their own.

Entrepreneurs should realise on their own when they are ready for a mentor, but also be prepared to accept that finding a mentor is not a necessary guarantee of business success.

5. What kind of arrangements can exist between entrepreneurs and mentors?

Some arrangements can be informal, others can be formal and structured (eg. retainer fee, equity). Mentor arrangements are usually long-term, advisors are more medium-term. Mentor relationships are usually one-on-one with entrepreneurs, whereas an advisor can be engaged for an entire company.

6. What are some challenges in identifying mentors?

There are unfortunately many posers out there calling themselves visionaries and mentors! Entrepreneurs need to invest time and energy in finding the right mentors. This may also change as the entrepreneur and his/her company grows, calling for different kinds of requirements. There should be a similarity in some basic values between entrepreneur and mentor, and a complementarity as well. Support groups and entrepreneur networks can help in this regard, as well as searches through social media such as Google and LinkedIn.

7. Why do people become mentors?

Mentors like the sheer thrill of creation and innovation, the passion of the entrepreneur. They like the balance between control and creation in a mentor-mentee relationship. Mentors have a strong sense of giving back to their community and to society.

8. What other kinds of advisory roles exist?

In addition to medium-term (advisors) and long-term (mentors) relationships, there are also one-off or occasional roles for ‘sounding boards’ – domain experts or diversified professionals who can be contacted as and when needed or on a regular periodic basis for ‘deep dive’ discussions on important topics. A series of such ‘sounding board’ interactions with diverse experts is also useful for entrepreneurs.

9. How do gender differences affect the mentor relationship?

Women are generally regarded as more empathetic, and open in discussing spousal relationships. But they can be every bit as driven as men in entrepreneurship and business, and there are no major differences between male and female entrepreneurs in how they deal with mentors (eg. sharing equity with them).

10. How does mentorship differ for entrepreneurs in the social sector?

Compensation forms like equity may not be relevant in this case; there is more of an emphasis on emotional, philosophical and even spiritual issues in this regard.

In sum, it is a mix of science, art and practice for entrepreneurs to understand and successfully engage with advisors and mentors. The panel discussion went on for over two hours, and it would be good to end this write-up with some quotable quotes from the evening:

“If the chemistry is not right, the arithmetic will not be right either.”

“One man’s emerald is another man’s stone.”

“Better to catch the goose that lays the golden eggs than just the golden egg.”

“Better to have a small slice of a big pie than a big slice of a small pie.”

[ Follow YourStory.in’s research director Madanmohan Rao]

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