No two mentors operate the same way. However if you've never been mentored before (or if you've never been a mentor before!) there are definitely some common pitfalls to look out for.

Dr Arthur Krebbers

And let's be honest - even if you're an experienced mentor, it's always worth taking a second to check you haven't slipped into bad mentoring habits. We chatted to Dr Arthur Krebbers - a start-up advisor and researcher, as well as a Virgin StartUp mentor - about the common pitfalls that can happen in mentoring relationships, and how to work around them!

Startup mentoring is a steep learning curve, littered with plenty of pitfalls. For those who would like to successfully guide the next generation of entrepreneurs, I’ve found that the following 5 habits are the most toxic. Believe me, because I’m still on a detox!

1. Talking too much

If our brain-to-mouth link is as speedy as a bullet train, our brain-to-ear connection is more like a horse and carriage. Our talking can easily dominate. As a mentor it can be tempting to repeatedly rehash your commercial success stories ad nauseam: “Enough about how I doubled the profits of tech firm X, let’s talk some more about how I turned around services company Y.”

I’ve found that listening is an acquired skill that offers major rewards. It helps you hone in on the entrepreneur’s obstacles and really target your advice. And you construct a two-way street. By keeping my mouth in check I am often learning valuable information from my mentee’s approach.

2. Micromanaging

As humans we are wired to be problem-solvers; we love digging into a clever conundrum. As adviser I have felt the urge to be a player-coach, to substitute myself onto the pitch and play the step-in CEO. “Right, to fix this you should do X, then Y and Z.”

To be really helpful, however, you should often stay on the sideline. From there you whip out a mirror and help your protégé reflect on their issue and possible solutions. Or you open up your toolbox and equip them with a new way of evaluating a problem. Self-sufficiency, not dependency, is the end goal.

3. Ignoring the person

Unique Selling Points, MVPs and scalability are all well and good, but their shortcoming? They often disregard the startup’s biggest assets, namely the founder.

As mentor I believe this requires the bulk of your attention. “How are you feeling about tomorrow’s investment pitch?” “What are your biggest concerns?” “How is your work-life balance?”

Improve the effectiveness of the founder and the knock-on effects on the business will speak for themselves.

4. Trying to be everybody’s everything

Being a marketing magician does not make you a supply chain supremo. When placed on the throne of Mentor, you run the risk of acting like the oracle of all things startup-esque.

A dose of self-reflection is critical in this regard. What is your advisory niche – i.e. in what two to three areas can you really add value? And are those in line with what your mentee is after? Depth of advice always beats breadth of advice.

5. Sloppiness

Mentoring appointments can sometimes feel like a chore. One that’s easy to deprioritise. “I’m sorry, can we push our meetup back one more time? Things are still very busy…”

Beware of this temptation. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely pursuit, and you are often an important helpline. Also, as a role model you should be congruent. If you espouse the virtues of good time management and professionalism in entrepreneurs, your message will only ring true if you act in the same manner.


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