Published On: Tue, Jul 21st, 2015

Mentors are essential to breed entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs play a vital role in the global economy. By developing new businesses, they create jobs, increase economic activity and drive innovation. Yet despite entrepreneurs’ positive influence on global prosperity and growth, they remain an often-misunderstood segment of the business world. Despite decades of academic research into the topic, there is no universal definition of entrepreneurship, and no agreement about the precise traits and behaviours that characterize entrepreneurial leaders. This is also because each individual journey is as different as chalk and cheese. We can look for some common attitudes and skills and try to construe a framework but this effort will often remain theoretical.

Few roles in business attract as much interest and attention as entrepreneurship. Often characterized as the “rock stars” of the business world, entrepreneurial  leaders enjoy a reputation as freewheeling and innovative mavericks. They are assumed to have a level of freedom of which traditional managers can only dream, and are perceived as operating in a world far removed from the staid bureaucracy of corporate life.

This romantic vision of entrepreneurship is appealing but, like most stereotypes, it is wide of the mark. In reality,  overlap between entrepreneurial leaders and traditional managers is much larger than is often assumed. Creative, innovative individuals may possess phenomenal ideas, but it takes vision, execution capability and business discipline to turn them into successful ventures. The business gurus have never identified a simple formula or “entrepreneurship gene” that can be nurtured and replicated, but they throw light on certain characteristics and habits typically shared by inspiring entrepreneurial leaders. But these traits alone are not enough to create the conditions for business success. Building a successful entrepreneurial venture also depends on a complex interaction of internal and external factors, including right timing, geography, culture and plain luck.

There seems to be consensus on two aspects

 

  • There is no entrepreneurship gene
  • Entrepreneurs can be mentored

In reality, there is no single entrepreneurship gene. But there are traits and experiences that make it more likely that an individual will choose the path of entrepreneurship and crucially, succeed over the long term. The set of management behaviours that characterize many entrepreneurial leaders lies along a spectrum, which includes factors such as a willingness to take risks and seize opportunities and an openness to change. Successful entrepreneurial leaders will often fall towards one end of that spectrum in at least one of those factors, but they will also draw upon a variety of other life experiences to create the finished product.

This is where one sees the importance of ‘Business Mentors’. An entrepreneur who is leading a business is always ‘alone’ in some sense. He/ She often does not know where to ask or who to ask. It is then a boon to have someone to ask questions, clear their clouds and bounce ideas. The entrepreneurial environment today across the world is blessed to have successful legends ready to spend time and to share their experience with the questioning minds. I have seen scores of entrepreneurs, young and old, getting insightful advice and making the necessary course corrections to court success in their ventures.

This mentoring relationship lacks the structure of a formal engagement, deliverables, creeping timelines et.al. It is a one to one relationship which has the potential to be life altering event for both the mentor and mentee. So what are the qualifications of a good mentor? A good mentor has the experience, expertise, endurance, empathy and can elucidate.

Experience: A mentor who has ‘been there and done that’ is far more effective than someone who has not experienced the travails.

Expertise: This is not the technical capability in a sector of industry. But the ability to understand the fundamentals of business, decision making, understanding of risk and risk management.

Endurance: Patience is key ; being a sounding board is not an easy task. The urge to prematurely  advise is infectious in experienced mentors too !

Empathise : A popular business leader once told me the difference between sympathy and empathy. He articulated that ‘ Sympathy is stepping into the shoes of the other and living his emotions ; while empathy is stepping in understanding and then stepping out and taking an unbiased view !” It is a very important skill in the mentor’s repertoire.

Elucidate : Ability to explain a point of view and clearly communicate through examples , allegories etc. is vital !

The key to success of having a good mentor relationship is often not with the mentor but with the mentee. When I look for a common thread, I clearly see a set of  habits that helped them benefit the most.

They prepare: Most of the discussions with mentors are not endless rambling discussions skipping from one topic to the other. The mentee needs to prepare adequately, be laser focused on his immediate queries and have an eye on the key questions in her mind.

They listen: They listen without bias or presumption. Often entrepreneurs have the impatience to complete sentences of the mentor in their minds and tend to hear what is logical to them. A good technique I have seen is the recording of these sessions – verbatim, to get the exact words and context.

They soak-in: At times, you just need to sit back, listen and receive. Some aspects may not be clear to you or seem illogical. Reserve your – ‘that will not work in my sector’ or ‘we have a very unique business model ‘comments and just soak in like a sponge.

They think: An agile mind needs to constantly think on the advice and make personal connections with their own businesses. These connections will help them to make action points customised to sustainable economic ideas related to their ventures.

They experiment: It is not enough to listen to it, or to think about it. But the most crucial aspect of mentoring is to actually try it out. If you have nodded, smiled and let the ball drop once the meeting is over – it is just a waste of your precious time.

They steer:  When the rubber hits the road, you may see that some ideas are still not prime and need to be modified. There is need to constantly monitor and steer based on the results of the experiments. Time is of essence when the course corrections are made.

They give-back: As and when they benefit, they constantly strive to pay it forward. They show tremendous energy and inclination to help others and spare time to do mentoring themselves.

An interesting point to remember is while youth is not a guarantee for innovation, decades of experience is not necessarily a proxy for mentoring skills. Choose carefully and choose wisely. The developing mentoring ecosystem is rapidly becoming available, reliable and more and more successful. Enjoy the benefits and share them with others …

Rajesh Nair

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Mentors are essential to breed entrepreneurship