As innovators, we often aim high when seeking out a mentor, hoping that proximity to a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk-type character will help us to reach our own ambitious goals. Most entrepreneurs have more than one mentor, and those advisors go on to serve different roles throughout a company’s growth.
Rather than limiting themselves by seeking to emulate a single inspirational figure, startup founders should first outline the characteristics they hope to embody as a leader, and then seek out the right person or people to help them acquire those traits. Above all, a mentor should reflect their mentee’s aspirations as the mentee undertakes the transition from a fresh founder to organizational leader. When searching for a mentor, entrepreneurs should find mentors who can assist in a variety of ways; often, this means a team of mentors rather than a single individual.
The Industry Veteran
As the face of a burgeoning company, startup founders need to become thoroughly informed in their chosen industry and demonstrate their expertise. That kind of deep knowledge doesn’t develop overnight, and a mentor can provide guidance and background information until founders become experts in their own right.
Startup founders don’t always begin with a deep background in their industry, but that’s okay. For instance, National University of Singapore is the place of origin for thousands of software founders, but the vast majority of those tech innovators don’t come from a computer science background. Once a founder enters an industry, they must attain specialist knowledge to keep ahead of their competitors. A strong mentor within their industry of choice will offer context to inform major decisions.
No matter how exceptional a founder is, they will require assistance in getting plugged into the industry and building strong relationships with established individuals in their field. Experienced leaders have already built their own networks, and they’re often willing to suggest, if not share, the connections that can boost a business.
Of course, finding a mentor can itself be a feat of networking, especially for those who are not naturally extroverted. However, networking is a critical leadership skill, whether it comes naturally to a founder or not. Founders must put in additional effort to maintain and expand the contact list they already have.
The Master Salesperson
While seeking out that initial investment, founders obsess over the crucial investor pitch, refining the content, delivery, and timing. Once funding is secured, founders must not stop selling their idea, and they should continuously hone their pitch to get better results and adapt as their company evolves. An experienced salesperson knows the tricks of the trade, and having a pitch-master mentor is crucial to the growth of a startup. Beyond securing investors, founders are continuously selling their products and services to customers and clients; in this sense, the pitching never stops. It’s important that founders choose a mentor who has mastered: precision, persuasion, and empathy. With these traits in hand, an advisor can help founders on crafting a home-run pitch for both investors and customers alike.
The Realistic Visionary
Though it is a key aspect of a startup’s formation, crafting a vision requires wisdom and insight that many early entrepreneurs have yet to gain. Most founders start with a strong idea for a better product, a better user experience, or even a better society. But a clear path is necessary to achieve these aspirations, and some have a hard time seeing the concrete steps to achieving their lofty visions. A good mentor can provide both a sense of direction and the occasional harsh reality check that founders need to achieve the aspirational.
In some cases, the greatest mentor can be found in a cofounder. Founding teams should share the same overarching vision, but founders may have very different strengths and even different philosophies, allowing cofounders to bounce strategies and ideas between them. If cofounders are clear in their respective visions, they can often receive and provide strong direction to each other.
Moving Towards A Character-Driven Ecosystem
It’s not always possible to find a mentor who holds all these traits. The importance of these strengths might also vary depending on the industry or even the values behind a startup and its innovation. However, a startup founder should seek a mentor who will guide them toward their leadership goals, and an effective mentor will push founders to progress and evolve.
As a startup generates more revenue and attention in the market, the founders and executives will inevitably come under the microscope. Establishing a core set of values can be critical from the beginning, as skyrocketing growth can distract founders from the ideals with which they started. The consequences of this lack of preparation can be seen in Uber, which witnessed breathtaking early growth and then a painful disintegration of its leadership team last year. From the outside, it’s hard to fully understand what other internal factors might have contributed, but at least part of the problem was that the company’s leadership enveloped itself in too many unresolvable conflicts as the company climbed.
A set of carefully-selected mentors can help to guide a company’s development and help fledgling leaders keep track of the big picture. Founders who surround themselves with positive influences often maintain higher motivation to develop an ethical, sustainable company.
With contribution from Danielle Keeton-Olsen.