Mentoring – a tricky task to organise and manage

Linking startups to the very mentors who might help them with their issues of the moment is a key role; and one of the most valuable roles of managers involved in innovation.

Jon Bradford of Techstars and Nektarios Liolios of Startupbootcamp, where mentoring is an integral part of the programmes, used to have address books bulging with potential mentors. But that is rarely the case into-day’s startup nurseries.

If mentoring is in essence about helping people to make progress, Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi was a classic example. He was not only one of the most productive scientists ever, but also, and intriguingly, mentor to six other Nobel Laureates. Einstein, Ghandi and Martha Graham are among many well-known people who have benefitted from mentors.

Leading startup nurseries of to-day, like the Central Research Laboratory and Imperial College see mentoring as an integral and essential part of what they offer; and its management as increasingly vital. To attract mentors they depend more on their reputation and their personal links. And they then have to manage the ‘matching’ problem.

Many are the stories of startups getting vital help from chance encounters, friends, other startukps, and visitors to the accelerator/incubator itself, as well as from mentors; and not least over a good boozy lunch!

Imperial’s I-Corps programme, like all I-Corps programmes (US), sent its startups at an early stage of the programme to find and meet a hundred interested parties (now made easier by the likes of Zoom.)

But mentors have been described as ‘difficult to recruit; their motives…not always clear; and mostly unpaid they are not necessarily reliable.’ Moreover ‘they play a number of different roles. They and their own experience are difficult to match to entrepreneurs; and to their changing needs. And they are not easily accountable.’

But they find it rewarding. MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service in Boston has created a club-like area where its mentors meet together and exchange stories about their mentoring escapades and what they have learned from them.

MIT’s VMS, and now Imperial, form small mentor teams for each startup. And they ensure that evaluation and reviews take place regularly (for which action learning is an ideal medium). And the fast-changing stages of startups can each call for different mentors.  

Brent Hoberman, a co-founder of Lastminute.com is encouraging people like him – with extensive experience of startups, to share their tales of  ‘blood, sweat and tears’ on mentoring platforms – where they can also contribute to workshops, advice and training sessions. And so professionalise the work of Mentors.

As MIT’s Mentoring service suggests, it is a matter of attracting potential mentors and then making the most appropriate use of their different experience and talents, and their often widely different contributions.

This has become a joint challenge – to heads of mentoring together with the heads of innovation/development programmes. And it is difficult to manage because of the fast changing needs of young businesses, and because of the many different characteristics of potential mentors.

Mentoring clearly needs constant review, for up-to-the-moment challenges – not as an ongoing prop. And it needs better understanding. (‘Mentoring – lowest prices’ says Amazon’s sad Google heading!)

Mentoring service management is expected to become more pervasive and more highly valued, but as yet there is no sign of anything in the UK like MIT’s Venture Mentoring Service.

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PS I’d love to hear your tales of mentoring, and menteeing. – and your insights.

John Whatmore, March 2021

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