What to look for in a mentor

Any mentoring relationship should involve the imparting of knowledge from mentor to mentee. They work best, and benefit both, when there is a shared sense of journeying together.

Eight years of teaching early in my career and a more recent decade as an entrepreneurial mentor at London Business School have conferred several tips and impressions that may be useful for the consideration of others. I have addressed that consideration in more recent years when standing in a room full of LBS summer school students, usually in the company of a fellow mentor, and we share our thoughts on what constitutes an effective mentoring relationship.

The only rule is that there is none. In the ancient tradition of those with experience and wisdom finding an effective means of sharing some of that with generally younger people who need it, there is a sense among the better mentors I know that we mentors and mentees embark upon a journey from which both may benefit. Good mentors do not so much instruct as just make themselves available. A courteous tradeoff rejects presumption: upon time in one direction, upon ignorance in the other.

Mentor and mentee begin most effectively as a team with an articulated understanding of what together they seek to achieve. That is usually the biggest challenge, and it comes early of necessity. The supposition is that not only do they know what they want, but they know who they are. Knowing oneself is a rare gift, however, for all the energy people put into marketing perceptions of themselves.

While some degree of self-possession might be assumed in the mentor, it is usually less true of the mentee. That is, in effect, where most mentoring relationships founder. You get halfway through the summer school and discover, as I did one year, that the young man was getting a business education to please his father, but was exploiting the social avenues that this opened primarily to meet girls. Pimping not being part of a mentor’s job description, that wasted time in both directions.

In effectively contracting to pursue a shared objective, a key distinction is made between the activity or product – the better mousetrap whose inventors are expecting the world to beat a path to their door – and the inventors of that mousetrap. Education at all levels is pretty good on the technical stuff, and business schools generally have the design and marketability issues associated with executing and scaling mousetrap empires pretty much nailed.

The mentor who is more sensitive to the nuances of human appetites and vanities, and to the variances in the crookedness of the timber of humanity, may express polite interest in the mousetrap but will be more interested in the inventors themselves. Investors are fond of saying, after all, that it’s easier to change the business model than it is the management team.

So: if we start with the question about the intended achievement, then the challenge for the mentoring journey is in some small part to address the qualities of the mousetrap. In greater part however, and for the longer term, the more rewarding challenge lies in discovering how the mousetrap’s inventor can become a better inventor.