Is Your Advisor a Critic Posing as a Mentor?
Every startup needs a couple of advisors with deep experience and connections in your business domain or financial skills to complement your technical focus. Advisors need to be mentors, looking ahead and directing you on key actions to take or avoid. Unfortunately, many prefer the role of critic, looking backward to highlight your mistakes. These people don’t help you or your startup.
Obviously, you can learn from both, but mistakes already made cost you more in time and money to recover, while mistakes avoided save both. A mentor’s objective is to build your confidence and business understanding with forward-looking insights, while a critic tends to undermine your confidence and spend time on weaknesses rather than strengths.
The same considerations apply to every constituent inside and outside your team, including co-founders, investors, strategic partners and every team member. Here are some clues that will help you see and attract the best advisors, as well as the right team members:
1. Is there a sense of trust and mutual respect?
The most productive business relationships are built on trust and respect, where both parties have the other’s interest at heart. The results are win-win relationships. Mentors have no interest in win-lose relationships.
2. Do advisor credentials include practical experience in the domain?
Critics tend to rely on anecdotal or academic evidence to support their position, as opposed to a mentor’s insider perspective based on years of practical experience. Good mentors don’t talk in terms of right or wrong, but in terms of best practices and elements of risk.
3. How effective are the advisor's communication skills?
You need advisors that are effective and unemotional direct communicators, face to face, over the phone or via email. Beware of people who are prone to emotional outbursts, pick public forums for their discussions and hope to influence you through messages to friends and cohorts.
4. Do advisor ethics match your own expectations and culture?
You will not be well served by an advisor whose ethical rules do not match your business area or government rules. In ethics, one size does not fit all, particularly in international business roles and cultures. Questionable ethics are not a risk any entrepreneur can afford.
5. Can you visualize a long-term relationship with this advisor?
Advisors that are good mentors often lead to career-long relationships and friendships, such as the one between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. An advisor’s value goes up over time as they better relate to both you and the business. Would you nurture a long-term relationships with your critics?
Nevertheless, you don’t always get to pick all your advisors, and we all have to anticipate some critics. Every entrepreneur needs to improve how they deal with critics to make their lives less stressful and more satisfying. Here are some recommendations that work, but all take self-discipline to implement:
- Do not take every criticism personally. All critical comments are not meant to reflect on your personal character. If you take every criticism as a personal attack, and react defensively, even the best-intentioned advisor or mentor will stop providing you the feedback and recommendations you need to improve your skills and your business.
- Be an equal-opportunity listener. It’s a natural human reaction to discount even good recommendations if they come from someone you don’t know well, is in a different age bracket or a non-native culture. Smart entrepreneurs learn to evaluate the content of the communication independently of the speaker.
- Practice the pregnant pause before responding. Pushing to reply immediately prevents comprehension or even hearing any advice or feedback. Think before you respond, and always answer with a reiteration of the points of agreement, before answering any points of criticism.
- Always respond with a smile and calm sincerity. Responding with anger and emotion leads to a confrontation. A smile projects confidence and a calm resolve to listen. The smile is contagious, and helps to put all parties at ease during serious and potentially volatile critiques. Your critic may actually see your perspective and become a supporter.
Most advisors I know really believe they are mentors and not critics. So before you sign up, it pays to check references or peers who have worked with them. True mentors are rarely confused with critics. Every entrepreneur needs help moving forward, and knows it’s hard to be a leader if you are always focused on the past.
Find more mentors and walk away from critics.
Martin Zwilling is the founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides products and services to startup founders and small business owners. The author of Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur? and Attracting an Angel, he writes a daily blog for entrepreneurs and dispenses advice on the subject of startups.