Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Mentoring in a startup community is a combination of different abilities and techniques to be used for the growth of the individual. The founder, in a startup program, has many answers in him or her, but I see the goal of the mentor rather to help the founder to first define the question. The answers then can come from within as well as from the mentor or the community - the point is, that defining the question makes the founder an active party of his/her own growth. Thus merely throwing answers at the founder will have little effect, they will pour down on him like rain on a raincoat. It is a cooperation in its full spectrum and cannot be forced on a person.
Sometimes it might happen that people force it on themselves, without yet being ready for the mentoring. When I say I work with people whose door is a little open, I mean people, who have opened the door within and at least have peaked in to understand that there is a lot to discover. Of course I adore working with people whose door within is wide open and they have already made quite a few steps in and have uncovered their inner layers. What does it exactly mean to have the door open? When does one need mentorability? How do you know if you are mentorable and what to do if you are not yet? Let’s dig in.
Why does one need mentorability in life?
Say there is a founder who is stuck in his business. He seems to be doing everything by the book, but the company is not growing or at least not by the speed he would prefer. Instead his relationship with his girlfriend is suffering and sleep deprivation is taking a toll on his health. Would you say that his problem is in his business or ways of doing business? Or maybe it is in what he believes in and how he thinks or uses his feelings? Hard to say, right, when you cannot see in the person. But does he see in himself?
If one wants to move on in life with big steps, then the secret to this lies within. Growth is not just about reading books, going to schools and taking part in different trainings. I have met a 70-year-old man, who had proudly acquired all kinds of knowledge of psychology from different schools and books and claimed to know it all, but he showed no capability of actually using this knowledge in practice, in understanding oneself, let alone others. Being with him was uncomfortable.
It is said that knowledge is power, but it is absolutely useless without action.
So much knowledge just gone to waste. Since the group he wanted to be part of was into applying everything in practice, he dropped out already after the very first session.
So in some sense it can be even said that not being mentorable leads to not being able to grow. At least not in the way I understand growth. There is a difference whether one learns all the things with willpower and fights his way forward through life and business blindly despite the obstacles OR he does it by facing all those obstacles within and designing them into opportunities. Moving forward is then not merely faster , but also much more profound and lasting. It literally becomes a lifestyle.
You can give people exactly the same tools, resources and education, but one will move faster than the other exactly because he is mentorable and open to growth and movement, ready to face oneself.
Who is mentorable?
The first hint that an individual is mentorable comes from how he/she responds to feedback. If the response is gratefulness with clearly seeing the value of the feedback and willingness to take action and change something, then the mentorability detector will show green. If the feedback is not what one agrees with or it is not given in a caring and open format, it will be hard to not put up one’s defences. In order to learn keeping your defences down and your mind open and curious to whatever comes in whatever format, you just need a lot of practice.
Years ago one leader of a kindergarten told me that she wouldn’t want to see me leave the board of parents, because she considers herself stupid and thus needs to have smarter people around her to help her lead. The detector would be so green around her because another key to mentorability is readiness not just to take feedback, but to actually go and ask for it. The fear of appearing unsure or less competent, becomes real only around the ones who are themselves not ready to grow at high speed. For others, asking feedback is nothing but a sign of self-assurance, competency and courage as this was for me. So, definitely not stupid, but rather the smartest leader there is.
Being mentorable means that you own your words, your deeds and your decisions, you take responsibility for them. Mentor is not responsible for what you say or do, you are responsible for using the conversations for your own growth. You are increasing your levels of self-awareness and you seek mentors who can challenge you, because you are not afraid of seeming unsure or getting out of your comfort-zone. You don’t know what you don’t know and you know it. You are curious about what you don’t know about yourself, others, the world.
And when showing up to the session, you come on time and prepared. Because you are the kind to take action, so in-between meetings you have done so. You are intentional about the time you spend with the mentor to get the most learning and growth available out of this relationship. You are ready to report your progress and you know what you want to tackle next to grow yourself and grow your business.
Who is not mentorable?
Do you know anybody who answers your feedback constantly with “Yes, but..”? And then the ‘but’ can be everything that in your feedback does not hold water for him or cannot be used, because … (pick a reason). A person who has a victim mindset and feels that the world is against him and that all these inappropriate circumstances, other people and their laziness or incompetence is responsible for their misfortune, is a hard case for mentoring.
They probably won’t even end up in mentoring because they see mentoring as a form of weakness making them seem flawed. And if they do end up in a session they might constantly feel resistant and reluctant and struggling with whatever goes on there. I have had clients in the first year of my career, when I felt I wanted to help everyone and believed I could, with whom it has been this kind of a struggle.
They seem to want the result, but not the process that leads to it.
They ask me for quick answers while I know that even if I would hand them out they would be of no use and I would end up being responsible for the results that are not happening. Well, after a few times of trying I stopped, realizing that I am not in power (yet?) to open the door for them. Now, during the almost 2-hour chemistry meeting, I profile them beforehand enough to be sure that this relationship is going to work both ways.
Let’s imagine that this person has ended up in a mentoring program, because the company feels that it is necessary for their growth and he himself understands it as well, even if he doesn’t believe in it.
Being non-mentorable he would then have an unrealistic expectation for the mentor to have the magic bullet to solve all the issues at hand, so they expect to be told what to do, giving away their personal responsibility and thus also power.
He might also feel resistant to change for not being open to new viewpoints and angles, because that’s how things are always done or this has already been tried and it didn’t work.
He might also be the one to know it all and thus coming to the session only to find evidence to back up that belief. He will end up doing things his way anyway and otherwise resisting whatever is said. Since he sees vulnerability as a weakness, he is never authentic in the sessions. Growing oneself or the business is very hard if one cannot be authentic with oneself and others. Vulnerability is the key to self-awareness and growth. It also means willingness to step out of the comfort-zone is missing, because of the fear of failing. So they’d rather wait to take action until they are no longer afraid.
Sometimes the defences are up for some specific situations and the person has blocked his/her vulnerability. The focus is on business only and self-awareness seems to have been pushed out of the room. Ducking away from questions that would otherwise go too deep. “Do you have any fears relating to talking to the investors?” “No!” Door closed, no discussion follows. And then mentors are left wondering whether it is possible to have no fears what-so-ever or then this door has been closed not to feel it because fears might interfere with the steps ahead. Even though this would be an excellent way to take the journey inside.
Another is the case when the mentor and the mentee have connections other than the mentoring relationship. It might work if the relationship is very open both ways and both are accepting it and are ready to admit if something feels uncomfortable right away, not withholding anything. But the purer the relationship is from other connections the better.
I have tried mentoring my boss (in a volunteer team) and also my team-member (whose team head I was) and neither of those relationships worked for different reasons. The tools can be used in the role - being an employee or the boss - but not for coaching/mentoring per se.
How to increase mentorability?
Start by opening the door to feedback. Ask from someone what you could do to be more effective in your work. Some founders are courageous enough to build that culture in the company from the beginning, so that partners and employees (let alone customers) know that the door is open. If it hasn’t been your practice so far, it will take a bit of time before your employees start to trust you enough. Their trust starts from your trust towards them.
But what to do with the feedback? First be sure you actually understand it - the seriousness, the importance of what is being said. Maybe it’s a casual suggestion? Maybe it is something that limits your growth as a person? If you don’t understand what is being said, ask for elaboration or examples.
Be grateful for this valuable perspective and show it to the one giving you feedback. Do it sincerely. This will determine whether that person is ever going to give you feedback again. And if it is hard at the beginning then admitting that, being vulnerable, is the key. I mean “Uh, I am doing this for the first time and it feels bloody hard, but I truly want to change…” kind of admitting. Just in case you had something else in mind.
You can actually also ask for suggestions on how to improve, the giver might have an idea. It doesn’t mean you will need to take it all, you still are you and you still have your opinion, but their idea might spark something even better in you. So use it as a springboard.
Age Rosenberg is a coach and who likes to point a flashlight to where you haven’t dared to look. She is an entrepreneur, with 15 years of experience in working as well as researching and teaching in the field of organisation communication and change, a trainer and a coach with NLP skills.
She is also one of .Cocoon Program mentors. .Cocoon is a startup founders personal and business growth program, that supports founders who want to solve their challenges. Let's talk and see if we can support you to solve your biggest business challenge.