Mentoring: a timely Academic review

Aside

Mentoring: a timely Academic review of its role in Accelerators Among the articles in the recently published book entitled ‘Accelerators’, the section on Mentors (much of it drawn from the extensive network of Accelerators in Israel) explores mentorship as ‘one of the building blocks of accelerators’ education programmes’. But coaching and mentoring remain underexplored and undervalued in the business world.

Perhaps its most helpful contribution is about typical problems with which mentors can help:

  • over-optimism and naivety about market barriers and the business model;
  • commercialisation of the product, and the targeting of its market;
  • marketing and dealing with global markets;
  • lack of managerial experience; and
  • difficulties in scaling up.

It is lack of experience more than lack of knowledge that is at the heart of many of these problems; and failures are an important part of experience – that mentors need to support and turn to good effect. (Very recent research by MIT suggests that successful entrepreneurs tend to be in the forties.)

Four regular topics identified were:

Setting up strategy and establishing priorities What is the market/the market fit for this kind of product/the best market to go for.

Revealing marketing opportunities Identifying unique benefits; how they would be used; and where they can be marketed to best effect, and against the competition.

Structuring organisational processes Advising on team membership and team building, including inter-cultural conflicts.

Expanding ventures’ social capital Occasionally connecting to other relevant startups/networks.

(Surprisingly there is no mention of product design or development, nor of manufacture.)

Mentoring is addressed in this book mostly through anecdotes, and largely in terms of mentors’ invariably extensive background experience, their perceived objectives, and their motivations. However it draws on too small a range of accelerators to include some facets of mentoring (like establishing a fit and developing relationships, and some important developments, like the way in which the need for specific kinds of help changes as businesses evolve).

Mentoring is described as ‘altruistic, educational, updating, stimulating and possibly offering investment opportunities’ and as sometimes a bridge to other contributors in the eco-system.

‘They [mentors] ask questions that force entrepreneurs to think strategically and more objectively, to intensify processes and shake entrepreneurs out of their comfort zone.’

‘The challenge is to match mentors to mentees according to the stage of development, their needs and personal fit.’ There is, however, nothing here about the various approaches to establishing good fits – many of them based on variants of speed-dating. (Startupbootcamp has used a talented mentor manager, both for finding specialist mentors and for changing mentors according to teams’ changing needs.)

Mentors, a contributor suggests, meet weekly or bi-weekly, but they develop their understanding and relationship progressively and in parallel with the development of the business.

One contributor asserts that having more than one mentor leads to confusion; but Steve Blank of I-Corps, the accelerator widely adopted in the world of science in the US, identifies five different aspects of development where mentors with specific backgrounds and experience are needed, often in succession to one another, namely: conceptualisation, strategy, product development, marketing and funding.

There is an unspoken presumption that mentors somehow know best how to play their role, though Startupbootcamp has from time to time brought mentors together and provided an opportunity for them to learn from one another’s experience in the role.

‘Accelerators’, edited by Mike Wright and Israel Dori, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2018.

John Whatmore, November, 2018

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What makes for successful project group leaders?

Aside

What makes for successful project group leaders People whose objective is to address tough problems start with different issues. Projects of this kind require different characteristics for successful leadership.

The Gates Foundation starts with health issues; the Scottish Government’s CivTech programme starts with public service issues; MIT’s REAP programme and Village Capital in New York start with local or regional economic issues. They then find leaders and build teams to tackle those issues – an approach which is the opposite of the entrepreneur movement – which simply encourages individuals to develop new products or services.

But one of their biggest problems in starting with issues is that of finding leaders to head up these issue-based programmes. Above all else, such people must be experienced experts in their field, but it is unlikely that they will have experience of running innovation-centred programmes.

Singularity University (www.su.org), founded in 2009 and based at the Nasa Research Park in California describes its aim as to leverage new technologies, and work together to start companies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. It is a community of entrepreneurs, corporations, development organizations, governments, investors, and academic institutions that runs an annual programme whose activities include custom educational experiences for leaders, conferences that inspire and prompt action, and innovative labs that incubate and accelerate corporate innovation and social impact projects.

If you are thrust into the leadership of a major innovation project, the approaches embodied in design company IDEO’s Design Thinking (www.interaction-design.org) may be relevant – based on these five skills:

  1. Observing:“Listen with your eyes” and discover what people really care about
  2. Stretch your thinking beyond assumptions and get to bolder ideas.
  3. Interviewing:Conduct interviews to get deeper, more honest responses.
  4. Immersive Empathy:Learn what it means to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”
  5. Sharing Insights:Craft compelling insights that will inspire innovation.

Steve Blanks’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps Are there any limits to the scope for Accelerators) runs a Boot Camp – a nine-week course designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – that has now been rolled out for biomedical firms as part of an experiment by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), and has recently been trialled by at least two organisations in the UK.

Its ruthless pitching tests have encouraged some of the participating organisations to change course; and others to search more assiduously for commercial applications of their science. “You can be a great researcher and you can think you have great ideas”, said one Congressman, “but until you’re forced to talk to a potential customer, you never really know.”

Research suggests that creative groups (addressing tough problems with big pay-offs) tend to be led by people who are visionaries – passionate and enthusiastic and sensitive to ‘process’, able to identify and bring together the necessary resources and the variety of talents, and then encouraging, orchestrating and supporting them, and protecting the group through its ups and downs. The research (Leaders of Creative Groups  also shows that they learn these skills primarily by experience – from one such project to another.

Scotland’s next generation of business leaders will benefit from entrepreneurial learning in a programme designed to develop future business leaders across all sectors – corporate, family businesses, the public sector and the third sector – delivered for the first time by Strathclyde Business School, led by Entrepreneurial Scotland in partnership with Babson College in Boston, USA – a world leader in entrepreneurial development (A heavy-weight investment in top entrepreneurial leaders.

The programme is for people who are at a turning point in their careers, aiming to become entrepreneurs: they may be starting a new business, entering an entrepreneurial business or joining a business that is looking to become more entrepreneurial.

It aims to instil entrepreneurial thinking and strategic leadership – by giving participants access to toolkits and techniques with an entrepreneurial perspective. The approach is described as facilitated learning: delivered by the business school faculty together with industry partners, with the help of mentors and advisers, and consisting also of networking and peer-to-peer learning.

Leaders of new ventures would surely find models like these useful, (as would policy makers) – whether they are designing their aeroplane on the way down from the cliff top, leading on a big problem that they have never before encountered in their life, or fostering innovation in the Hebrides or London.

John Whatmore, June 2018