Nurturing the Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Mentors in the Pune International Centre (PIC) Social Innovation Lab (SIL) have mentored over 70 social entrepreneurs since 2018. The following distills our collective experience in developing positive mentor relationship with our mentees.

Before mentoring:

It is essential mentors have three key qualities – authenticity, curiosity, and humility.

  • Authenticity entails a genuine desire to help the mentee, and to “walk the talk.”
  • Mentors need to be curious about the entrepreneur’s own inspiration, customers and product/service, and demonstrate it by asking pertinent questions throughout the engagement.
  • Humility in using whatever expertise, knowledge and experience a mentor has to add value to the mentee, which includes saying: “I don’t know”, and reaching out to someone who could help. This is particularly pertinent, given the significant age difference between the mentee and mentor in a culture where we often respect someone based on age alone.

On their part, mentees need to be proactive in their readiness to build on the mentor’s guidance, and not merely do what they are asked to look into; examples are their willingness to ask questions, including “what-ifs”, and build on interactions with mentors, not merely carry out what the mentor suggests. The mentor can guide the mentee through a set of standard steps, but the emphasis is on the mentee to extract maximum value out of the relationship.

 

During mentoring:

  • Hygiene: Mentees and mentors must honour their mutual commitments by being available for every scheduled call to their best ability. In the event a mentor or mentee has to reschedule a call, they should offer an alternate time to catch up and sustain momentum. At PIC, weekly calls scheduled by the SIL staff for the first six months are very helpful in this regard. And, each call needs to start on time, every time.
  • Rapport: We have found it takes several calls at the outset to cultivate rapport between mentors and mentees. Obviously, the mentor needs to take the initiative through a number of small but important steps, such as understanding the mentee’s inspiration for starting their enterprise, their vision, challenges, and issues. On the mentor’s side, elaborating his impressive credentials and career successes could very well impress, even awe the mentee, but not be exactly helpful in building that rapport. The aforementioned humility comes in handy here. Basically, the mentor needs to put the mentee at ease to create a “connect”.
  • Expectations: The mentee needs to clearly communicate what they expect from the mentor. Sometimes a mentee may genuinely not have a clear expectation from the mentorship. This may require the mentor to ask and probe, both at the outset and after a few calls once he has a better idea of the social enterprise and mentee’s requirements. Clear expectations are the foundation for mentoring relevant to the mentee’s requirements and the mentor’s capabilities.
  • Responsive listening: Professor Otto Scharmer at MIT describes four types of listening: Downloading, Factual, Empathic, and Generative. Downloading is the usual listening mode, where one passively listens to something that one is often familiar with. Instead, mentors could be genuinely responsive during mentee interaction through Factual, Empathic, and even Generative listening when the relationship evolves to the stage of collaborating with the mentee to build on ideas and possibilities.
  • Commitment: The mentor and mentee must follow through on whatever they have committed to follow up on after a call, within the stated time. In the event issues arise subsequently, such as the non-availability of a third party, or delay due to an unanticipated event, there must be timely updates between them. This is all about “walking the talk.” Lapses here by either can and will undermine credibility in the commitment to the mentoring effort.
  • In the mentee’s shoes: The mentor should regard himself as the mentee’s partner. For example, the mentor “chews on” or “sleeps over” the mentee’s challenges and opportunities between successive calls. He shouldn’t be available only for the duration of the call with the mentee. Often, interesting ideas and suggestions emerge, which the mentee may very well be able to implement and achieve a breakthrough. Also, we have found visiting a mentee’s location achieve two key benefits: the mentor gets a first-hand experience of what the mentee and his team are dealing with, and the latter feels very encouraged to know the mentor has made the effort to visit them. Some of us have visited our mentees in tribal areas where they work outside Maharashtra, even to Nagaland!
  • Punting: This is where the mentor realises a mentee needs something beyond his expertise and tells the mentee he will try to get him the necessary help. As an 8-mentor team with diverse expertise, we often seek each other’s involvement when needed to help a mentee. Also, the PIC has developed a Shared Services Programme, through which domain experts in areas such as entity registration, Web content, and digital marketing help our mentees for a discounted fee.

 

After (formal) mentoring:

Mentor Availability: In our experience, some mentees stay in touch and seek advice as and when needed after formal mentoring ends. This depends on several factors, such as the nature of the entrepreneur’s product/service and the social sector they are in, degree to which their enterprise has grown, the mentor-mentee relationship, and so on. That said, the mentor should be available for the one-off call to the extent their own work and other commitments permit. This ongoing relationship is very helpful to the mentee even after his enterprise has sprouted wings and started flying, through ongoing advice, and networking.

By following these guidelines, mentors and mentees can cultivate a strong and mutually beneficial relationship that contributes to the development and potential success of the mentee and his enterprise.

 

 About the Authors

Mr. Pramod Athalye is the co-founder of Bourton Consulting India, an international boutique management consultancy, helping organizations achieve operational excellence through continuous improvements.
Mr. Amit Bhargava is AVP at Birlasoft. He is an accomplished professional with over 16 years’ experience in Strategy, Sales Operations, IT consulting, business analysis, stakeholder management, program and project management.

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