Friday, November 6, 2009

challenges in mentorship

sorry guys, have gone awol again last three months, been traveling like travel will go out of fashion, as usual, that's the excuse, not the reason, latter being JPL!!! (just plain lazy for the uninitiated :))

as always, loads and loads of exciting things both on the teaching front as well as on the mentoring front.

like i said in my last blog, i was mentoring Solkar Solar, Chennai, as part of the New Ventures India initiative. it's an interesting concept , they shortlist several companies after a rigorous process of due diligence, assign a mentor from the industry, who will hand-hold the company for the next eight weeks and come up with a robust biz plan which will be pitched to the investor comunity at the end of the eight week period.

solkar was assigned to me for mentorship.

ragunathan who's a first generation entrepreneur started solkar 25 years ago as a project for his Master's at IIT-Madras, way before solar was even thought of as a viable industry. up until two years ago he had a good run because there were government subsidies and government aid and he built an amazing bouquet of products and services and an incredible name for himself.

in the last two years, subsidies and aid have become moribund and he has had to reinvent himself to compete in the open market.

ragu is your quintessential inventor-entrepreneur. even to this day, he designs all his products.

for me this whole experience was exhilarating as managing ragu was a bigger challenge than managing his and his company's re-invention.

ragu has practically been the prime mover in the industry and as such has written the script pretty much at both State and Centre in renewable and non-conventional energy. he has tremendous brand equity and every cell in his six foot plus frame reverberates with energy (pun intended).

in his head ragu and solkar are the same. like all entrepreneurs, even after 25 years, he refuses to let go of solkar to breathe independently. he sees it as an extension of his persona. which is all very well except that at some point you need to be able to say that what i can give it is not enough.

my challenge was how do i manage ragu's passion for the benefit of solkar? because believe you me, he has no life beyond solkar and i wanted to harness that passion and energy positively for the growth of the company. when you have an entrepreneur who is egoistic, possessive and passionate, how do you mentor him? how do you tell him where he has gone wrong?

and this was my biggest learning. that you dont tell him where he has gone wrong. because if you do you incur his wrath!!! and that becomes a show-stopper. actually you dont need to tell him.

so what do you do? you do the trapeze act :) what i learnt to do was get ragu to focus only on the future. we rarely spoke of the past. the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent. we almost managed to treat solkar as a new start-up without legacy costs. result, ragu put together a very vibrant biz plan, we have very fruitful final stage discussion with VC's currently, and we have ragu in a completely transformed mode : from a i-me-myself entrepreneur to a builder of professional, catalytic, energising management team.

and my take-away from this whole experience were some very interesting insights into the do's and dont's of a mentor :
  • identify with the mentee and his company. you have to impress upon the mentee that both of you are on the same side. so i learnt to say, our company. i never said your company.
  • dont do post-mortem. no finger-pointing saying you did wrong up until now, because the sub-text then is up until now you were an idiot, now that you have me i will wave my magic wand and all problems will disappear :) NO NO NO!!!
  • entrepreneur is already likely to be very opinonated, you dont add to the mess by being opinionated. your personal opinions and thoughts have no place in the mentorship equation. your advice has to be purely situational, contextual, not the baggage that you have come with. because if you do that, the poor entrepreneur will have to battle your baggage in addition to his own !!
  • mentors cant have fragile egos. mentors cant say if you dont do what i ask you to do, i will stop mentoring you. i had a mentee who would patiently listen to me, would never argue when i gave him my reasons, and would go and do exactly the opposite. and the results would be at variance with his expecation and then he'd come back to me saying, sorry nandini, i didn't listen to you and now i have messed up, help me sort it out please. with him i learnt to be forgiving and never to tell him i told you so!!!because for god's sake every entrepreneur has the right to make his mistakes and learn from them.
  • it follows from here that mentors dont know everything. neither they should think they do nor should their mentees think they do. both mentor and mentee are work in progress. it should be a journey of like-minded pilgrims, not Buddha and his disciples!!
  • it is very important to assure the entrepreneur that you have no personal agenda. neither monetary nor psychological. it is this that inspires trust, funnily enough.

even as i write this, it occurs to me that mentoring is a lot like parenting. it's built on trust, and by trust i dont simply mean dependency but also honesty.

you should know what line neither of you can cross.

you should learn to balance your opinion and mentee's opinion with the demands of the situation.

you should learn to step back, watch him make mistakes and remain nonchalant even as he gets ready to dust and pick himself up and continue onward.

you should be prepared to learn alongside him, there may be times when there is a role-reversal.

and most important, both of you should know all the time that his well-being is sacrosanct to you.

i've learnt one thing : parenting and mentoring have made me a better person.