Advisors and mentors are a critical asset to any entrepreneur looking to start or accelerate their entrepreneurial journey. In my most recent post, I talked about the five best types of mentors for an entrepreneur. But just as knowing what to look for is important, knowing what to avoid can be equally valuable. In most cases, it boils down to understanding the motivations of those individuals who are looking to "help." In every instance, the most beneficial relationships are those where both parties recognize that mentoring is a two-way street.
When a time-starved and in-demand individual is approached for advice, they often consider: "What's in it for me?" For entrepreneur Steve Blank, who I had the fortune of meeting with this past October, it's all about: "Teach me something I don't know." Other potential advisors may be seeking something other than expanded horizons in return for their efforts, though, and it's important that entrepreneurs seeking their counsel are aware at the outset of what exactly that might be. Whether it's because of negative traits or nefarious intent, the following are five types of "mentors" an entrepreneur is better off without.
Anyone starting a business knows that the odds are heavily stacked against their future success. While founders shouldn't delude themselves about the hurdles and risks they face, they do need to surround themselves with believers, not detractors. Tony Tjan said it best in the New York Times: "A good mentor never tramples on big dreams." The Naysayer thinks of all the reasons a venture might fail, rather than helping an entrepreneur understand all the ways it might succeed.
Stories have a powerful way of guiding an aspiring entrepreneur because they connect directly, taking hold in ways that facts and stats cannot. A great mentor is willing to share important life and business lessons, but only after listening to their mentee first, and only at the appropriate "teachable moment." For all the value that an illustrative tale can bring, entrepreneurs should seek to avoid pontificators lacking purpose. These mentors are unwilling to listen intently and are quick to wax lyrical about their own war stories, whether relevant or not. Endless bloviating sucks valuable time, and advances nothing other than an already oversized ego.
In seeking quality advisers, entrepreneurs don't need someone out to control their every move. The Puppeteer expects that every piece of advice they hand down will be followed, and they take offense if an alternate path is taken. Quality mentors understand that they provide advice and counsel for a mentee to consider, not instructions and directions to follow blindly.
The close cousin of the The Bloviator, The Topper always has a better story, or a more impressive accomplishment for every victory the entrepreneur celebrates. In the mind of the Topper, the entrepreneur's ideas aren't there to be finessed or refined; they play second fiddle to the Topper's far superior notions and tactics. A great mentor seeks to nurture the ideation process, and celebrate triumphs; for a Topper, the startup is simply the opening act. This show is all about them.
The Vulture sees mentoring primarily as an opportunity to advance a personal agenda. This type may take the form of early-stage investors seeking not to help entrepreneurs, but to position themselves first in line for an interesting deal flow. But when mentors become investors, they lose the key trait of objectivity. While it's great when an entrepreneur finds an advisor so impressed that they want to invest, the order of the interest is key; it can't be their primary motivation for mentoring. As Vivek Wadhwa, Vice President of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University, writes in the Wall Street Journal: "What you want in a mentor is someone who truly cares for you and who will look after your interests, and not just their own."
Vultures may also appear as professional service providers who disguise free advice as mentoring at the outset of a relationship, anticipating that their efforts will soon convert into a paid engagement. Unless intentions are clear from the outset, a bait-and-switch approach (with murky expectations) is no way to start a mentoring relationship, and certainly no way to win business.
Part of what we've done in the Burton D. Morgan Mentoring Program that I direct, is to make mentor selection a priority and an art. Entrepreneurs can approach us secure in the knowledge that we've done our best to filter out the Bloviators, Vultures, Naysayers, Puppeteers and Toppers. While mentees will still need to build a trusting and beneficial relationship with their mentors, we're able to eliminate some of the risk up front.
But not every entrepreneur has the benefit of a formal program vetting their prospective advisors. That's why establishing what a mentee is looking for -- and what a potential mentor hopes to get in return -- is a critical step in kicking off any rewarding mentoring relationship. Quality mentors gain great satisfaction watching their charges evolve over time and mature both as individuals and as entrepreneurs. Through effective mentoring, they have the opportunity to have lasting impact on the world around them, while getting exposure to innovative ideas and technologies, and creative business models.
Entrepreneurs should understand that this experience holds real value and, in many ways, is the currency through which they can compensate their mentors. The value of an entrepreneur's currency, combined with a good understanding of the "buying process," determines if they are able to afford and choose the very best mentors around. So when it comes to shopping for mentors, it's a case of "buyer beware."