Mentees with a growth mindset, mentors driven by empathy and a desire to give, and program administrators who invest in training for mentors and mentees on how to best leverage mentoring relationships are leading success factors for entrepreneurial mentorship programs.
Mentors with extensive entrepreneurial experience can make a significant contribution to the success of new or less experienced entrepreneurs facing the inevitable setbacks of early stage ventures. Many entrepreneurial mentoring relationships, however, rarely reach their full potential.
Research from the University of Michigan, INSEAD, and the Entrepreneur Futures Network, based on an extensive survey of mentors, mentees and mentoring program administrators in 33 U.S. mentoring programs, highlights some key factors for successful mentoring relationships.
Formal training. The research found that formal training and mentor education is lacking across the board. In general, aside from basic orientations offered by some, entrepreneurial mentoring programs don’t educate mentors and mentees on how to pull the greatest benefit from the mentoring relationship. Simply connecting an experienced entrepreneur with a student or budding entrepreneur will yield disappointing results for all parties involved.
Personal attributes of mentors. In addition to experience and knowledge, the best mentors share a common set of personal attributes essential for productive mentoring. In general, the most sought-after qualities in a mentor are being trustworthy, empathetic, a good listener and an effective communicator. Empathy, that is, truly caring for the mentee, is emphasized; some volunteers for mentorship are more concerned about what the program can do for them—in terms of recognition, contacts and other benefits—than what it can do for the mentee.
The researchers summarized the best attributes of the mentor as someone who
A growth mindset in mentees. Mentors and mentees agree that the core contribution of a mentor is to provide guidance. There is some disagreement, however, of the form that this guidance should take. Many mentees are looking for specific information and advice, and direct answers to their questions. Mentors on the other hand believe that an indirect approach—helping the mentees learn by asking them probing questions and encouraging reflection—is the way to create successful entrepreneurs.
The issue of providing answers vs. asking questions is more than a process issue. It reflects a fundamental difference in mindset. Mentees who prefer questions and opportunities for reflection have a growth mindset: they believe that entrepreneurs have skills that can be developed and learned, and that mentors offer a path to the acquisition of those skills. In contrast, mentees without a growth mindset view their mentors more narrowly as information and advice sources. Mentees with a growth mindset see more value in mentoring programs than their non-growth mindset counterparts.
Intensity of interactions. The research covers university entrepreneurial mentoring programs and well as non-university programs. One difference between the two is the intensity of interactions. Interactions in non-university programs are much higher than in university programs, which increases the value of the collaboration between mentor and mentee—especially given that non-university programs are often able to recruit more experienced mentors. Low mentee motivation (students may not intend to start entrepreneurial businesses), poor mentee-mentor fit, or insufficient training on effective mentoring relationships contribute to the lower intensity of interactions in university programs.
Networking opportunities. Especially for mentees in non-university settings, the opportunity to be introduced to the network of their mentors—to meet potential customers, suppliers, investors and partners—is considered by mentees one of the most value-adding outcomes of the mentoring relationship.
A voice in matching. The importance of involving mentors and mentees in the matching process cannot be overlooked. The more mentors and mentees participate in choosing their partners in the mentoring relationship, the more they are satisfied with the relationship.
The important role that mentors play in developing new entrepreneurial talent is unquestioned. This research reveals, however, some of the challenges faced by program administrators, mentors and mentees as they strive to maintain productive mentoring relationships.
Non-university mentorship programs fare better than university programs according to the study. In thriving entrepreneurial ecosystems — Silicon Valley is a shining example — companies are willing to invest in strong mentoring programs, recognizing their fundamental contribution to success.
The research suggests the following approaches and best practices for creating a high-performance entrepreneurial mentoring program:
Mentoring in Startup Ecosystems. Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, David J. Brophy, Thomas Jensen, Melanie Milovac & Evgeny Kagan. Ross School of Business Paper No. 1376 (November 2017).
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