Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

5 Keys To Effective Entrepreneurial Team Mentoring

I’ve always wondered why every executive meeting has to be one hour in length, or longer. That’s probably a tenth of your day spent on one issue. It better be a critical one, because you have a hundred others waiting. I believe you can be much more productive, as well as a more effective leader, if you approach most meetings as mentoring opportunities, and limit them to five minutes.

In a traditional meeting, another person presents you with multiple options, and you make the decision. With the five-minute mentoring approach, the mentee asks for your support in their decision, or asks for your insight on the considerations for them making a future decision. Which approach do you think is more fulfilling for them, and best for your company in the long run?

The time limit has more to do with setting an expectation that the meeting is not for solving the problem, but coaching on the parameters and the approach. If you are a problem solver by nature, like Richard Branson,  this requires you to change your mindset from giving the “answer,” to helping someone else understand the process, and come to an even better solution.

I have used this approach with high-tech roles, like software design, as well as business development roles. It works, but in all cases, to be a successful mentor, there are some key things you have to do:

  1. Be available always. If you are “too busy” most of the time, or locked behind closed doors, no mentoring relationship can work. It has to be evident to the mentee that this relationship is important to you, and you will make short periods of time available on a moment’s notice as required. If you often make people wait, they will take extra time, which will make more people wait longer and later.
  2. Adapt to each individual learning style. Start by open listening. Some people learn best from anecdotal stories, and others need concrete pointers and step-by-step instructions. Respect each mentee’s desire to grow and honor their individual style. Remember that five-minute listening is not the same as five-minute mentoring.
  3. Respect discussion confidentiality. Mentor discussions must remain confidential, so both parties can talk freely to each other without being quoted around the water cooler later. The mentee must not be afraid to show false starts or a naïve perspective.
  4. Provide honest and constructive feedback. Personal attacks and emotional comments are not appropriate, but people need real feedback to learn. Set the context by clarifying your goals and expectations on a regular basis. Critique the work and not the person.
  5. Hold the mentee responsible and accountable. Encourage the mentee to generate their own solutions, and make it clear that they must accept full responsibility for their personal choices. Good people won’t want it to work any other way. Most people learn best from making mistakes, so you have to let them fail sometimes.

I’m definitely not proposing the “traditional” style of mentoring, where the goal was a one-way transfer of a broad range of knowledge or information. Here the mentor was the authoritarian source, and directed all other aspects of the mentoring relationship. The mentee was a passive recipient and often had little say or control in the relationship.

Today’s learner-centered mentoring is a dynamic and two-way relationship that involves critical reflection and full participation in short period increments by both partners. The mentor assumes a role of a facilitator. The mentee becomes a proactive and equal partner, helping direct the relationship and set its goals.

The primary responsibility of a startup founder is to provide vision and leadership. Use five-minute mentoring as one tool and stick to it with unwavering zeal. There’s nothing worse than getting off course and entering areas that lead you away from the primary track. Your greatest contribution is maintaining focus and guiding the team. Give it a try. You’ll get your time back and real respect.

Written by Martin Zwilling

user Martin Zwilling Founder and CEO,
Startup Professionals

Martin is a veteran startup mentor, executive, blogger, author, tech professional, and angel investor. He is the Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners.

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