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Climbing to the top isn’t easy, no matter what your profession or goals. By definition, it’s something few people have done successfully. Not only is it hard, with multiple different types of challenges, some of which you won’t even know exist until you meet them, but there’s a relatively small number of experts who are qualified to guide you.
That’s why so many truly successful people in business (and other fields) seek out a mentor: someone with relevant experience who is prepared to share their knowledge with them and help them find their way. As Richard Branson, the British billionaire who founded Virgin Group, once said: ‘If you ask any successful business person, they will always have had a great mentor at some point along the road.’
Branson’s own mentor was Sir Freddie Laker, the entrepreneur who founded Laker Airways in 1966, and whose expertise was instrumental in helping Branson get his own airline, Virgin Atlantic, off the ground in the 1980s: ‘It’s always good to have a helping hand at the start. I wouldn’t have got anywhere in the airline industry without the mentorship of Sir Freddie Laker.’
No matter what your industry and goals, but particularly in the fast-paced and challenging Web3 sector, having a mentor to help show you the way is more than useful – it can be the difference between success and failure.
Mentors And Mentees
Mentors typically play a multifaceted role, providing guidance, support, and expertise to help their mentees (or ‘proteges’), achieve their personal and professional goals. In practice, that might involve doing anything from sharing their own experience and knowledge and offering constructive criticism to modelling behaviour and character, encouraging their mentees, and facilitating connections. The benefits to the mentee are many and varied.
- Guidance: Mentees gain valuable guidance and learning from someone with a greater degree of experience and expertise in their field, accelerating their personal and professional growth.
- Skill development: A mentor can help you develop specific skills and competencies faster with personalised coaching and support.
- Confidence: Mentees should experience a boost in confidence as they receive positive reinforcement and constructive feedback, reassuring them they are capable of success and are on the right track.
- Networking: Mentors can introduce mentees to valuable connections in their personal and professional networks.
- Practical advice: Mentees gain real-world insights based on their sector and situation that may not be readily available from any other source, especially formal education or training.
- Accountability: Mentees are held accountable for their goals and progress, helping motivate them to stay on track.
- Support: Mentors often serve as a source of emotional support and a sounding board for their mentees, helping them navigate both personal and professional challenges.
While the most obvious benefits might be for the mentee, mentorship should be a mutually rewarding experience that offers opportunities for both parties.
- Personal growth: Teaching and guiding others helps to enhance and consolidate skills and knowledge, leading to a deeper understanding of their area of expertise.
- Leadership skills: Mentorship gives an opportunity for mentors to refine their leadership and communication skills, practice coaching and provide constructive feedback.
- New perspectives: Mentees will ideally bring fresh insights and ideas to a mentor, encouraging them to consider new perspectives and stay update-to-date in their field.
- Networking: While a mentee will clearly benefit from a mentor’s professional network, mentors may themselves benefit from connecting with a new network and becoming part of a broader professional community.
- Building a legacy: Many mentors gain intense satisfaction from giving back, or ‘paying it forwards’, helping to train and prepare the next generation of entrepreneurs, just as they themselves benefitted from other successful business people’s experience. Their mentees’ success is part of their own legacy.
Mentorship should therefore be a two-way relationship from which both mentors and mentees benefit.
The Power Of A Good Mentor
Many of the most successful entrepreneurs benefited from the advice and guidance of a mentor. For example, Steve Jobs mentored Mark Zuckerberg early in his career, helping him to figure out how to make Facebook a success – just as Jobs had built one of the most successful tech companies in the world. In turn, one of Steve Jobs’ first and most influential mentors was Bill Hewlett, the CEO and co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, another hugely successful tech company. Following the chain of mentors another generation back, Hewlett studied under and was mentored by Professor Frederick Terman at Stanford. Terman, along with inventor and physicist William Shockley, became known as the ‘Father of Silicon Valley’.
It doesn’t have to be business, though. Barack Obama was mentored by a woman called Michelle Robinson when he spent the summer of 1989 interning at Sidley Austin, a prestigious Chicago law firm. He credits Michelle as being a source of support who was instrumental in achieving the successes he has enjoyed in his life – and married her in 1992.
One of the best-known examples of a strong co-mentoring relationship is the friendship shared by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The two met in 1991 when Gates’ mother, Mary, invited Washington Post editor Meg Greenfield to her home, bringing Buffett with her. The 36-year-old Bill Gates was busy running Microsoft and was reluctant to take the time out; Buffett, too, didn’t see the point of meeting him. In the event, though, they got on better than they expected. Gates was impressed by the questions Buffett asked, and recommended he buy Intel and Microsoft stock. They have stayed close friends ever since, both benefiting from the co-mentorship and drawing on the other’s experience. Buffett has given billions of dollars of Berkshire Hathaway stock to the Gates Foundation.
Advice For Mentors (And Mentees)
There’s a lot to be gained from a mentoring relationship, on both sides. However, don’t be tempted to rush in – either as a mentor or a mentee. It’s not for everyone, and the wrong mentor-mentee relationship can be a source of frustration and disappointment, rather than encouragement and support.
In an HBR article, authors Vineet Chopra and Sanjay Saint unpack some of the dynamics that underpin a great mentorship. While they are both academic physicians (a discipline that entails a lot of mentoring), they state that the same principles apply no matter what the sphere of life. ‘The best mentorships are more like the relationship between a parent and adult child than between a boss and employee. They’re characterized by mutual respect, trust, shared values, and good communication, and they find their apotheosis in the mentee’s transition to mentor.’
Good mentoring relationships don’t just happen. They require a degree of insight, planning, and effort – on both sides.
Find the right mentor/mentee
As a mentor, you’ll be investing significant time into your mentee – time that you could be spending working more directly on your own career, with family, or in leisure. That’s fine, because there are plenty of tangible and intangible benefits, assuming you find the right mentee.
Having a mentee who is inflexible, resistant to changing their approach, unreliable, or overly passive, is a recipe for disaster. We’ve all worked with people who need constant prompting or correction in the course of their jobs, and who seem incapable or unwilling to learn new skills. That’s going to be particularly frustrating in a mentee, because the relationship is far more than a transactional employer-employee one. This is someone you’re helping to prepare for the rigours of entrepreneurship and, hopefully, success at the highest levels. If their actions suggest they’re not hungry for it, you’re wasting your time.
For this reason, it’s a great idea to test the water to see what a prospective mentee is really like. There are various ways of doing this. Get them to give a presentation in their (or your) chosen area, to prepare feedback on a relevant book or paper, or sit in on an important call and offer their observations afterwards. If they don’t finish the task or if they need chasing, that’s a red flag.
Similarly, for mentees, you should be keen to find a mentor who is as engaged and proactive as you are. Be realistic: some mentors are simply too busy to give you the time you’ll need often enough to really benefit.
Set boundaries and expectations
Even with the right person, it’s important to know what to expect from the mentor-mentee relationship, on both sides.
A few things should go without saying. The relationship should be characterised by openness, mutual respect, and appreciation for what the other has achieved.
Beyond that, it’s helpful to establish what each party hopes and expects to get from the mentorship. For example, the mentor should seek to understand the mentee’s goals; the mentee, for their part, should be open to receiving honest feedback on these, and adjusting them if necessary in the light of the mentor’s input. They should also ensure they have a realistic sense of what the mentor can offer. It’s best to be absolutely clear about what the mentoring relationship is expected to provide, from both sides, at the earliest point possible. Aside from making life less stressful, success is more likely when you’re on the same page.
Figure out how often you will communicate, and how (e.g. phone, VOIP, in-person), for how long (e.g. an hour a week), and what you will discuss in the next meeting. It’s generally best to stick to this framework and not make unscheduled calls, unless there’s a very good reason.
Consider working in a team
Another possibility is to approach mentorship with teams of both mentors and mentees. This not only provides a greater breadth of experience, but helps share the load and covers everyone when one or other mentor is away for one reason or another. However, this is only really realistic with a high degree of organisation, and probably only within a large company that has multiple suitable candidates.
One final possibility to consider is offering mentorship as a perk of employment. This is part of an organisation’s employer branding, helping to set the company apart from the competition. It also makes good sense in Web3, which is a highly specialised area. Helping to prepare more junior members for leadership in the space is vital.
This is something CEOs might incorporate into their leadership style (known as coach-style leadership). A mentor leadership style focuses on guidance, support and the development of individuals within a team or organisation. The leader is not just a boss but a trusted advisor and role model who helps other members of the company grow personally and professionally.
This requires a certain amount of time, since (like any mentoring relationship) it means building one-on-one relationships and offering guidance, feedback, and encouragement. The benefits are that mentor leadership fosters a culture of growth, collaboration, and self-improvement, which ultimately contributes to the long-term success of the company.
Employees might like to raise this possibility in their organisations – either with a view to being mentored by one of the more senior team members, or because they may have contacts who would be good mentors to work with externally. If this isn’t an option, individuals might explore dedicated mentorship programmes, but be careful: just assigning someone a mentor risks being counterproductive, as discussed above, so make sure they match you with the right person.
Paying It Forward
Ultimately, the goal is for mentors to help develop their mentees to a point where they are ready to become mentors themselves, paying forward the benefits they have experienced to prepare the next generation for success.
The best mentors will make this an explicit and deliberate part of the process, discussing the challenges of moving into a mentorship role. This may take many years (though in a sector like Web3, it’s likely to be much faster). Alternatively, a mentor-mentee relationship may develop into more of a co-mentor relationship. One way or another, though, the transition to becoming a mentor is proof that the mentorship has been a success.