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Among all the different qualities that they say an entrepreneur should have (and the list is often unrealistically long!), one that often gets missed out is ‘mentorship’. So why should an entrepreneur have mentoring qualities? When you first launch, the start-up or new initiative is driven entirely by your energy (and your co-founder’s, if you are lucky enough to have one). You can say that you have reached ‘escape velocity’ when the organization, among other things, is able to attract talent on its own merit, without depending on the founders. Between launch and escape velocity lies a tough journey that needs energy from several people – and a journey that can last for several years depending on what you are trying to build. What could make that journey a bit easier or at least more fun is a great team, one that can bring the mix of energies needed. And during this unstable phase, the team you are able to attract depends largely on you. So here’s my take on five ‘mentorship’ qualities that could potentially help attract and retain a great team…
1. Take the effort to help each team member succeed – and in the way he/she defines success.
There is only so much an entrepreneur can offer by way of stability or role clarity or monetary incentives. But the start-up environment does provide unusual degrees of freedom for people to define and achieve success in different ways. One of your team members might want to speak at a conference. Another might want to experience marketing. Yet another might want the experience to add up towards that Ivy League MBA application. A little bit of effort to understand what is success for each person and tailoring roles and opportunities towards that can go a long way.
2. Be honest, generous and timely in feedback – both positive and negative.
In the ambiguous environment of a start-up, team members are often wondering, “Am I personally doing a good job?”. One way to stop the wondering (because it’s an unnecessary distraction from productive energy) is to provide genuine feedback regularly, on both what’s working and what’s not. Be clear and specific. “Great job – you answered his questions very well” is helpful; just “Great job” is nice to hear but not particularly helpful. “Use more phone follow-ups; you tend to use only email” is helpful; “your follow-ups are ineffective” is not.
3. Be a great supporter in good and bad times – build your team’s confidence.
I can never forget this incident from more than 15 years back. As a young person in the corporate world, I presented a wrong analysis to 27 CEOs, who were all really surprised but appreciated the ‘counter-intuitive conclusion’, only for me to find a major arithmetic error the next day! I told the partner on the project (a great mentor), expecting a drastic reaction, but instead, her focus was entirely on how we can communicate the revised conclusion to the group of CEOs. And when I asked her to check the details of the revised analysis, she said, “I am sure you won’t get it wrong again”. In an entrepreneurial setting, this becomes even more important – being there to take the brunt of external mistakes and not letting your feedback break a team member’s long-term confidence.
4. Be available, especially for non-urgent questions.
Inbetween the current growth and hectic operations, and the long term business strategy, one often gets into the habit of postponing the seemingly “non-urgent” questions from team members. These could range from “Why are we fundamentally doing this?” to “Can we allocate some budget to set up a snacks corner in the office?”. Be available for these. And if it’s not possible at all at this point, define a milestone, say, “after these specific 3 months of launch”, when you as a team will take up the non-urgent questions.
5. Acknowledge mistakes and failures.
Acknowledging mistakes is probably powerful in every setting, but has some particular benefits in an entrepreneurial setting. It reduces your own burden by making it clear to the team that everyone is building this organization together and the founder’s current views are not necessarily the right ones. It makes giving and taking feedback far more natural and “equal”. And it cements the mentoring relationship as a much more mutual obligation.