What makes a great mentor – I meet one

I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator
In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank. With regular reviews, he was clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. His team succeeded in raising the funds they were seeking; and they gave him a great accolade.

Having recently retired from the bank, he was looking to fill his calendar, to escape the City, to keep up to date and to have a bit of fun; and for a team with a cool idea, and with people who were intellectually interesting, and with whom he felt he would like to work. He thought that they were looking for someone who would provide them with connections and who had as much excitement about their idea as they had.

There are so many tasks and so much to take in, all competing for the attention of the entrepreneurs in the very early days of an Accelerator, that it is evidently difficult to determine your focus. One result is that what the mentoring can offer and how to make use of it get less attention than they might. He felt that it would be useful if there was a data base from which you could learn about the specific skills of mentors and the nature of their contacts [as well perhaps as their availability and degree of commitment; and commendations.]

In the Beauty Pageant, when at the beginning of the 13 weeks small groups of potential mentors met with each of the teams on a rotating basis over two days, he and the team which he ultimately mentored had each quickly identified and singled out the other: ‘it was a matter of personalities’ And the relationship simply grew from there – ‘swanning into a formal programme’. There had been no discussions of expectations between him and this team.

‘You could tell from the questions and answers where there was informal interest.’ You could tell, he said ‘who wants to play’, who is passionate, who knows their stuff and can articulate it by means of how people ask and answer, as you can who has a sense of humility [as willing to listen and learn].

Accustomed as he was to a pattern of working in which Friday was review day, they had evolved a way of using a video link by which to publish major documents [and commentaries], circulated to everyone including Directors and existing investors, from which everyone could keep completely up-to-date with situations.

He saw himself as facilitating, making things happen and in getting politics out of the way. He was in and out frequently – working with them to reflect on each situation, to clarify their plans, their options and their decisions and to maintain a road map and timetable of where they should be and when over the 13-week period of the Accelerator – always listening, acting as a sounding board, offering comments, and helping the team to make use of the resources available (- other participants in the Accelerator, entrepreneurs in the adjacent incubator, and his own contacts).

He was impressed at the quality of the original idea behind the business. Over the course of thirty years in banking, ‘I have seen plenty of stuff – people, management and businesses’, he said. He was also deeply impressed at the confidence and competence of the members of this young team; and proud of their successes. He commented on the change in working together brought about by the Accelerator’s lay-out, which located all the members of each team together around a table and adjacent to all the other teams.

He had attended a Mentor Day, when a small number of mentors had met together for discussions at a mid-point in the programme, which he had used to satisfy himself that his own work as a mentor was not biased in some way; that he was not missing something; and in order to meet and hear from other mentors.

He commented on his contribution to one situation where there was no Plan B; and to another critical situation where progress had become seriously slow, where he had contributed to working out solutions. By way of example, we discussed the team’s Demo Day presentation (each team’s presentation to potential investors was repeated several times, each time to new audiences) where he had contributed to its organisation, and to its logic, sequence and structure. And he had sought to use the questions people raised to help identify gaps in the presentation.

He had felt that both at Selection Day (when the candidates for inclusion in the Accelerator were reduced from twenty to the ultimate ten) and at Demo Day, and maybe on other similar occasions, that the large number of participants (there were nominally over 200 mentors and there were other hangers-on) had ‘dumbed down the process’: fewer people, he felt, would have enabled the presentation to be more targeted.

He was evidently pleased that the experience had enabled him to learn something, to give back, and to give value; and that he had enjoyed it so much. He observed that every mentoring situation was different; and commented that ‘mentoring improves your mentoring’. And the best thing of all (and completely unexpected) was that they had asked him to become Chairman.

January 2015

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