Sunday, October 17, 2010

Who is a mentor ? Reprinted with permission from Entrepreneur magazine

Ram (name changed) is your quintessential inventor-entrepreneur. Even to this day, he designs all his products and sells them. For 20 odd years, he built and managed his company successfully which had  now begun to experience entropy.

I was assigned as Mentor to Ram by the organization which facilitates investment access to entrepreneurs. For me this whole experience was exhilarating as managing Ram was a bigger challenge than managing his and his company's make-over.

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?

This was my biggest learning. That you don’t need to tell him where he has gone wrong.

So what do you do? What I learnt to do was get Ram 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 his company as a start-up without legacy issues.

As a result, Ram put together a very vibrant business plan, raised capital, and completely transformed himself from a being an inward-looking entrepreneur to a builder of a professional, catalytic, energizing, management team.

My take-away from this whole experience was some very interesting insights into the do's and don’ts of a mentor :
  • Identify with your 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”.
  • Don’t do post-mortem. Don’t indulge in finger-pointing saying you did wrong up until now, because the sub-text here is up until now you were an idiot, now that you have me I will wave my magic wand and all your problems will disappear! NO !
  • Your mentee is likely to be very opinionated, especially if he has had a successful track record. You don’t 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 may have come with. Because if you don’t, your mentee will have to battle your baggage in addition to his own!
  • Mentors cannot have fragile egos. Mentors cannot tell the mentee : if you don’t 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 advice, and would go and do exactly the opposite. I learnt from him never to say “I told you so”!
  • Mentors need not know everything. Neither they nor their mentees should 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 your mentee that you have no personal agenda, neither monetary nor psychological. It is this that inspires trust, and trust is a non-negotiable imperative on which the mentor-mentee relationship is built.
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 don’t simply mean dependency but also honesty.
You should know what line neither of you can cross. You should learn to balance your opinion and your mentee's opinion with the exigencies of the situation. You should learn to step back, watch him make mistakes and remain nonchalant even as he gets ready to dust, pick himself up and continue onward. You should be prepared to learn alongside him, as there are 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.
My biggest learning? Parenting and mentoring have made me a better person.