mandag den 3. februar 2014

A world of experience in the form of advice

Whether you're engaged in a startup or a maturing company, you most likely often find yourself operating in circumstances characterized by extreme uncertainty regardless if your challenges concern acquiring new customers, refining your value proposition, attracting capital etc.

A skillful way to deal with uncertainty is to plan for fast learning and systematically test your assumptions in order to either validate or change them. A simple and extremely useful way to do this is to talk to those whom you expect to be your primary customers. 

Another powerful way to accelerate learning is to establish a relationship to accomplished individuals who are willing to lend their experience and insight to the venture you are undertaking. That is; entering a mentor relationship. If you manage to build trustful relations to mentors they will apply the world of their experience to your venture in the form of valuable advice.


However good mentor relationships don’t just evolve by themselves. So what do you need to consider to build such relationships? Here are 10 basic principles formulated by Martin Zwilling on his Startup Professionals blog for both the mentor and mentee to remember to get the most out of any mentoring relationship:

  1. Good mentoring requires building a relationship first. A positive business or personal relationship between two people normally requires a high degree of shared values, common interests, and mutual respect. Remember that good relationships take some time to develop, so don’t assume that your first discussion will seal the deal.
  2. Agree on specific objectives and time frames. Mentoring that consists of random discussions is not very satisfying for either side. I recommend one or more early discussions of mutual objectives, with a written summary of goals and expectations from the mentee to the mentor, with timeframes and milestones.
  3. Make efficient use of time for both parties. This means being respectful and diligent about scheduling and keeping appointments, and returning emails and phone calls. Don’t attempt to multitask, or allow constant interruptions, during meetings. Book follow-up sessions, with an agenda, rather than fill time with random discussions.
  4. Identify strengths and weaknesses early. Both the mentor and mentee should put their cards on the table, to avoid surprises later. Then both should look for opportunities to leverage strengths, and shore up weaknesses. This avoids wasted time and speculation, and provides the motivation to bring in other experts or mentors as required.
  5. Mentor feedback must be thoughtful, specific, timely, and constructive. An important aspect of a mentoring relationship is how the mentor provides feedback to the mentee. Formulate negative feedback in a constructive fashion. Using open-ended questions that start with “how” or “what” help the mentee to arrive at their own solution.
  6. Mentees should avoid any defensive reaction to feedback. The right response to most mentor feedback is a thoughtful question for clarification. Immediately responding with “reasons and rationale” to every feedback will be read as insincerity, and will likely end the mentoring relationship quickly.
  7. Practice two-way communication and candid feedback. Mentoring is not a series of monologues and lectures, from either side. But candid feedback means not pulling punches when they are deserved. Both sides need to practice active listening and thoughtful questions. Constructive conflict is good.
  8. Agree to deal with unforeseen challenges openly. The most common challenges involve time and accessibility demands on either side, or the level of help expected. Both sides need to honor business boundaries, and not stray into personal relationship issues. Agree up front on how to end the relationship if other unforeseen circumstances arise.
  9. Celebrate successes, and deal openly with failures. This will help the learning process and build the mentee’s confidence. With patience and time, the partners should develop a good rapport and become more comfortable with openly and freely conversing with each other.
  10. Evaluate mentoring requirements on a regular basis. The mentee, as primary beneficiary, should be proactive in making sure the review process occurs on a regular basis, perhaps quarterly. This allows for frank discussion of unanticipated changes, and the potential for discontinuing the process and declaring success.

Martin concludes:

“The end of a mentoring relationship should be seen as an opportunity to review what did and didn’t work, and more importantly, to reflect on the results, so that every lesson that can be learned from the relationship is recognized.
 
Both the mentor and mentee should celebrate the successes, review the learning from failures, and conclude the relationship with positive feelings. To bring it full circle, mentees should now consider passing on their new knowledge and skills by entering a new mentoring relationship – as a mentor. That’s the ultimate satisfaction.”