What makes a healthy mentoring relationship

One of the most important elements of the support we provide for our startups is the mentoring programme. Each funded entrepreneur is matched with a mentor who is there to support them through the difficult first year of business, and our mentors come from a wide range of industries and professional backgrounds - there's a mentor for everyone out there, and we try and make matches made in heaven.

One of our mentors is Dessy Tsolova, founder of Utelier - a platform that brings together entrepreneurs and manufacturers. She's mentored more than one of our startups by this point. Here's her perspective on mentoring, and why it's essential.

"The word mentor has its roots in Greek mythology. It was the name of Athena when she disguised herself as a trusted adviser to the young Telemachus. Sometime between then and now the name stuck, and usually these days it refers to a trusted and experienced advisor, mostly in business relationships.

Having a mentor is one of the things in life where those who need it most either don’t know about it or don’t know how to find one; and those that are already successful almost without fail have or had one, because they know and understand the value a good mentor brings.

So while most young entrepreneurs may smirk and be a little nonchalant at the thought of needing to find a mentor, a more experienced business person will put them right by explaining that if you want to be better at what you do, advance your career, try a new venture, increase the chances of your startup’s survival, then you need a mentor. That would be someone you admire, in whose footsteps you want to follow, someone who can provide you with guidance you won't find anywhere else.

So after years of helping countless friends, friends of friends and now people I meet through my business, here is what I have come to believe and would love start up entrepreneurs to hear.

What makes a good mentor

A mentor is someone who must have experience and a proven track record.  Depending on what you are looking for, they might not even be in your chosen industry -  but what they must have regardless is the experience to be able to help you navigate difficult situations, help you find long-term strategies, stop you from making some mistakes, guide you and help you accelerate your growth. Whatever you're going through, there's a good chance that your mentor has been there already.

What a mentor is not

A mentor is not someone who works for you or in your business. They are not a coach for you either. They won’t or shouldn’t tell you what to do and absolve you of your responsibility. A mentor is someone whose breadth of experience and all the failures and wins accumulated over the span of their career allows them to act as a sounding board to you and bring unbiased opinions and new perspectives. A mentor can help you look at situations in new ways,  ask hard questions and help you solve problems, keep you focused, and get you to see the bigger picture and set clear goals.

Mutual trust and respect is paramount

The relationship between a mentor and mentee is a personal one, based on a mutual understanding and on voluntary basis. Mentors don’t get paid for what they do, and a good mentor cannot be forced to become one. Mentors mentor because they want to share what they have learnt (often the hard way), because they wish to help those following in their footsteps the way they were helped, or perhaps because they wish they had that kind of help when they were starting out. Once that trust and respect is there, your mentor will become your ally and supporter, your challenger and defender.

Helping you be your best business self

If the trust and respect is there, a good mentor can expand your network of contacts and business acquaintances; they can open doors and make new introductions to influential people in your field. More than this, a mentor will be responsible and will hold you accountable. Setting goals and reaching them is pivotal to the success of your business and the mentoring relationship. A mentor is not a friend to whom you can overpromise things to (and underdeliver on these promises).

Finding a mentor

But lets face it – finding a mentor, let alone a good one, is not easy. If you decide you want to have one, and if you are reading this and not part of the VSU scheme,  then to start with evaluate your own network and try to find a mentor among your contacts and connections. If that fails to land you one, then perhaps approach someone you know of and admire. It's worth a try, right? The worst they can say is no.

If for whatever reason you cannot yet find one, then perhaps do as I did. Think about all the bad bosses you’ve had in the past and what they did; being an avid observer and open to learn from the mistakes made by others is a powerful short-term form of mentorship.

And remember, once you've found a good mentor, don't let it be just a one-way street. Always end your meetings with your mentor by asking, "Is there anything I can help you with?"

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