5 Ways To Be A Better Mentor In An Enterprise Environment

Source: 5 Ways To Be a Better Mentor in an Enterprise Environment - MOVES THE NEEDLE

By Aaron Eden on August 11, 2014

Mentoring is hard. It’s even more challenging in an enterprise environment compared to startups. With employees, leadership must also act as managers; careers are involved, as is pay. Yet mentoring must be thought of as a completely different role.

Lean innovation teams are often behaving in new ways as they interact with customers, run experiments, and compile data as evidence for market validation (or invalidation). They’re acting like startups. Mentoring represents new behavior for the leaders, too, who must learn how to encourage the startup behavior, offer ideas, evaluate evidence, and hold teams accountable to their learning.

With that in mind, here are 5 ways to step out of your managerial mindset and into a mentor’s.

1) Teach, don’t Tell

The role of a mentor is not to criticize a business model. Too often, we hear comments to teams like: “that’s not a great idea” or “that will never work.” While the mentor might be right, it’s not because they know this to be the case.

It’s important to note that the role of the mentor is not to replace the team’s business model assumptions and market guesses with his own. Instead, the mentor should teach how to test and validate (or invalidate) the team’s own assumptions.

We recently had a conversation with the leader at a large software company who insisted that it was her responsibility to prevent founders from wasting their time on ‘bad ideas.’ This is a problem. Mentors shouldn’t be the arbiters of good ideas. Mentors should, however, encourage good experiments. It’s quite possible that your expertise is blinding your ability to see a team’s insight.

Poking holes in new ideas is easy, but not productive. Focus on teaching the founder the skills they need so they can learn whether the idea is good or not.

2) Focus Your Advice

Mentoring advice should be focused on the team’s specific needs. Part of this is the team’s responsibility, of course, which needs to articulate a clear objective for a particular mentoring session.

Still, mentors should avoid giving general, expansive advice. We wince whenever we hear “Have you ever thought of…” openings to ‘advice’. Sometimes this is appropriate to get teams to think about things in a new way, but more often than not, the conversation is hijacked and taken on a tangent unrelated to the objective at hand.

Successful leaders are often analytical people. They’re used to breaking complex ideas down and coming at problems from different angles. This is clearly useful in many circumstances, but when mentoring, be wary of overusing this ability in unconstructive ways.

The best mentors ‘score’ their confidence level of the advice they give. In other words, they will say: “Listen, I’m just shooting from the hip here, I don’t truly know, but I think…” or “I’m pretty confident about this, because…”

3) Challenge Assumptions

One of the keys to getting a new business off the ground is to understand what is known versus what is unknown. Large organizations tend to create an atmosphere where pretending to know seems safer than admitting doubt. After all, the thinking goes, if you don’t know, you’re not really ready to launch the initiative.

In my book, The Lean Entrepreneur The Lean Entrepreneur: How Visionaries Create Products, Innovate with New Ventures, and Disrupt Markets:Amazon.co.uk:Books, he helps teams articulate where on the “Innovation Spectrum” their ideas lay. Those toward the disruptive side face more “unknowns” and those toward the sustaining side know significantly more about their markets. A central premise of the lean startup is to divide your activities so you focus on executing what is known and learning what is unknown.

Mentors can help here in a couple of ways:

Challenge the Founder’s thinking by exposing non-validated assertions. It’s great that teams are passionate about their product ideas, as they should be. But conviction based on passion creates a faith-based startup that is doomed to fail. Mentors can help founders devise experiments, provide introductions to customers, or come up with other ways to “search” in the realm of the unknown.

4) Beware of Being a Domain Expert

Aren’t you supposed to bring your domain expertise? In The Lean Entrepreneur The Lean Entrepreneur: How Visionaries Create Products, Innovate with New Ventures, and Disrupt Markets:Amazon.co.uk:Books , I talk about how business activities vary depending on where a product sits on the innovation spectrum. If you try to apply your industry expertise to a startup that is trying disrupt that industry, you’ve got a problem: To industry insiders, disruptive innovation looks like bad sustaining innovation.

You might want to read that again. This is why “experts” love the phrase “It’ll never work!” That’s the last thing a team needs to hear from an insider. Try to remove yourself from the emotion of seeing your industry potentially disrupted, so you can share market knowledge, contacts, and other tips and hacks.

And yes, the mentee should be aware of this when seeking advice from you and other experts. But, the best mentors are aware of their own biases and steer clear of areas where they have a personal stake or a strong emotional connection.

5) Teach Entrepreneurs how to be good mentees.

Many entrepreneurs need to be taught how to be good mentees. For example, while mentors view follow-up as an indication of “entrepreneur-worthiness”, mentors who are interested in a particular startup or founder, should reach out themselves.

But, reaching out doesn’t mean, “How’s it going?” Reaching out in mentoring is something like this:

“Hey, I haven’t heard from you in awhile. If you really wish to take advantage of my mentoring (or someone else’s mentoring), you need to be more proactive. Here’s what I recommend:

But, reaching out doesn’t mean, “How’s it going?” Reaching out in mentoring is something like this:

“Hey, I haven’t heard from you in awhile. If you really wish to take advantage of my mentoring (or someone else’s mentoring), you need to be more proactive. Here’s what I recommend:”

After each mentoring session, write an email thanking the mentor and summarizing the conversation. Additionally, follow up within a week with specific action taken on the advice or why the action wasn’t taken.

It’s good to write a monthly update on startup status, needs, achievements, etc. Send this note to all mentors, sponsors, and interested people.

You won’t hurt my feelings if you have chosen to work closely with other mentors, but I think the above advice will serve you well.”

Exceptional mentors ping the entrepreneurs. It’s like teaching Business Development; you are actually developing a skill. Mentors will also likely have to be proactive in establishing what metrics will be tracked on a weekly or biweekly basis. After a while, the team will get a handle on it. The key is to concentrate on a few metrics that are most critical to moving the startup forward. (So in the early stages, not revenue or scaling!)

Early on, metrics might be:

  • Number of customers the team will talk to this week.
  • Number of active users. (Not downloads or logins)
  • Number of shares