The dark side of mentoring

The dark side of mentoring

August 23, 2011 by Mike Southon

This autumn I will be delivering some events focused on mentoring, aimed at aspiring entrepreneurs and those who would like to help them.

There will be some business consultants in the audience and I will explain to them that mentoring should never be regarded as a revenue opportunity. While it is certainly a great way to meet people, I feel strongly that mentoring should always be provided for free.

The mentoring relationship should be a two-way process, with the person giving the advice learning as much, if not more than the person seeking it. The basic principles are identical for any business, but a mentor will have to help resolve the specific delivery challenges they are presented, or at least be able to find someone in their network that does.

The greatest learning for mentors is always about themselves. While they will have had some successes in their life there will have also been failures, from which they hopefully learned about their own strengths and weaknesses. Maturity and self-awareness are essential pre-requisites to being able to give measured advice to others.

At the most basic level the mentoring process is very simple. The mentee should prepare a document explaining where they are and where they want to get to; the mentor should advise and then give specific objectives to be met before the next meeting. If the two feel motivated enough to meet again and some useful progress is being made, then the mentoring is working.

This methodology has been working since the seventies at The Prince’s Trust and more recently in the Trailblazer projects for the New Enterprise Allowance Scheme. It should therefore be relatively easy to motivate my audiences to either seek out or volunteer for mentoring. However, it would be wrong for me to paint an overly optimistic picture, so part of my presentation will explain the dark side of mentoring.

Most mentors will approach the task with little or no formal training and will therefore be unprepared when the mentees do not listen to their sage advice or otherwise let them down. It is important for mentors to adopt an air of professional detachment at all times and not try to intervene unnecessarily.

The lessons of life can be hard, and sometimes have to be learnt the hard way. There is a good argument that all mentors should study the techniques of counselling, in case they find themselves with a mentee who is disturbed and manipulative. Otherwise, the process can result in the problems of the mentee adversely affecting the personal life of the mentor.

You can also find yourself trying to mentor someone who, frankly, is not yet up to the difficult task of entrepreneurship. I once had a mentee arrive over 30 minutes late and their business story was a catalogue of disasters, which they dismissed as external problems outside of their control, rather than a by-product of their inexperience.

As they were struggling to be profitable and unable to attract a team, my advice was to work for someone else for a while and perhaps later look at striking out on their own once they had developed their experience and network.

They listened to this advice politely, but their e-mail the next day declared there was no way they were going to abandon their dream and their new goal was to prove me completely wrong.

Of course, no one will be happier than me if they achieve this worthy ambition, but in the meantime, I have shrugged my shoulders and got on with my own life, as all mentors have to do sometimes.

Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.

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