Top 11 Qualities of an Effective Mentor

Mentoring is a much-bandied-about, yet ill-understood term. A mentor can be a priceless resource for an entrepreneur. What does it take to be an effective mentor? Here is my take.

Everyone wants to be a mentor. That’s fine. Everyone thinks he is a great mentor! That’s just not fine.

Being a mentor to an entrepreneur is no easy game. To be an effective mentor, one needs a certain set of attributes and a certain approach. But fundamentally, one needs to have a sound understanding of what constitutes mentoring.

Being a mentor to a few entrepreneurs myself (though by no means a great one yet!) and having watched other (better) mentors in action, I have come to the conclusion that mentoring is an acquired skill. Nobody can be a super mentor from Day 1. But, by chipping away consistently, one can definitely get better at it.

A good mentor can add enormous value to an enterprise. If an entrepreneur can benefit from mentoring, his/her chances of success (and the scale of success) are very likely to be higher than otherwise.

At a nationwide level therefore, we need thousands of very good mentors to support our booming base of entrepreneurs. This is true especially now, when the start-up scene in India is seeing explosive action.

And so, the key question is: what does it take to be an effective, reliable mentor?. This is what I think.
Learns about the relevant industry

No mentor can be expected to know about all the industries in the world. He will probably know about a few very well and have a superficial knowledge about some others. There will be many industries of which the mentor knows next to nothing. So, the first thing a mentor must do, is read up about the entrepreneur’s industry and talk to a few people operating in it.
Gets into the details of the business

The extent to with which the mentor tries to understand the entrepreneur’s business is a measure of his true worth. He must be ready to go through the company’s website, speak to a few customers and vendors, interact with the employees, and read the business plan and financial statements. Only then will he be able to grasp the nuances of the business.
Is objective

If the mentor is not objective in assessing the state of the entrepreneur’s business and the direction in which it is headed,he could end up seeing the business through the eyes of the entrepreneur.

And that would be dangerous, because then, the mentor will not be able to correctly identify what’s right and what’s wrong with the business.

If the diagnosis is flawed, the action taken would be flawed too. The whole point of having a mentor is to get an unbiased view of the company.
Asks tough questions

This is closely linked to the previous point. From time to time, the mentor acts as an examiner who poses tough questions to the entrepreneur. Not to needle and rattle him, but to really get him thinking about where his company is headed.

If the mentor does not perform this role diligently, complacency will most likely set in, giving the entrepreneur the feeling that all’s well, when actually all may not be well.

These questions could pertain to the business model, the definition of target customers, delivery times, the time taken for the business to break-even, the extent of capital investment needed, systems and processes being adopted, risk forecasting and mitigation, etc.
Takes an all-round view

A sound mentor is one who analyses and talks about every aspect of the business with the entrepreneur. He does not restrict his involvement to his traditional area of expertise alone.

Business strategy, mapping the market potential, understanding the customer segments, cash flow requirements, operational processes, customer satisfaction, innovation,.all these and more should be covered regularly.

Where necessary, the mentor will help the entrepreneur bring in specialist resource persons from outside, to help him and the entrepreneur tackle a certain aspect of the business.

Taking an end-to-end view of the business is all the more the mentor’s role, because the entrepreneur often gets caught up in operational pressures and so, could adopt a blinkered approach.
Points out chinks and gaps

This one’s easier said than done.The mentor must be honest enough and courageous enough to point out the problems and challenges facing the business.

Also, if there is something wrong within the organization (such as a weak process, poor accounting standards, and bad Marketing plan, whatever) he must point it out and nudge the entrepreneur towards corrective action.
Opens doors

One of the chief stumbling blocks for a new entrepreneur is his lack of contacts. The business may need a website designer, a good auditor, and contacts in prospective client companies or an event manager, not to mention an investor.

It will help if the mentor makes a few calls and puts the entrepreneur in touch with the relevant agencies and resource persons.
Strikes a balance

In working closely over a long period, a certain degree of closeness is bound to develop between mentor and entrepreneur. This is perhaps inevitable and is not wrong, as such.

It is up to the mentor to ensure that he does not get too close either to the entrepreneur or to his business.

Getting too close would lead to a loss of focus and objectivity; it could also make the entrepreneur take the mentor for granted, in which case the mentoring loses its relevance.
Teaches patience and audacity

Entrepreneurs are often a scared lot. And an impatient lot. This is understandable, because they have put their all into the business and are eager to make things work.

In such a state of mind, they have to be gently taught to keep the faith, aim big and persevere. The mentor has a big role to play in calibrating the entrepreneur’s tempo and in making him think big.
Shares his value system

A good value system and work ethic is most important and can take an entrepreneur a long way. It is perhaps the key to building sustainable organizations.

Also, in a larger sense, it helps maintain a clean and healthy business environment. The mentor must share his professional value system with the entrepreneur and to the extent relevant, get him to incorporate it in business behavior.
Motivates and laughs

All that hard work needs to be balanced with tons of humour. A mentor with a sense of humour is indeed a great asset to the business. His joie de vivre is likely to rub off on the entrepreneur’s team, with the result that they unbend once in a while and keep celebrating successes along the way.

This eases the working atmosphere tremendously. Finally, the mentor has to pat the entrepreneur in the back once in a while for a job well done, and keep him motivated.

Ultimately though, the mentor has to remember that his role is to help the entrepreneur take the business forward.

He therefore has to intervene from time to time, offer the right inputs and step back. He should remember that it is the entrepreneur who has to take the wheel at all times.

(In referring to mentors and entrepreneurs, I have used the masculine gender for ease of writing. No gender bias is meant!)