“Mentoring” is easy to offer but not always easy to deliver

September 23rd, 2013 → 11:31 am @ // No Comments

A while ago I engaged with an aspiring entrepreneur to drive a new company.  The business model had been proven to work, and I just needed someone with energy and a sense of ownership to make it happen, in exchange for modest income plus equity.

The entrepreneur had already started a small business in a similar space and said that a key motivation for taking this role was to get mentoring from the Board.  I was happy with that.  It explained why an entrepreneur who had their own thing going might put it aside to work on my business for a couple of years.  I have mentored a lot of entrepreneurs, and was happy to help one who would also be helping me at the same time.

My experience with entrepreneurs is that they are opinionated, self-motivated, and impatient.  The mentoring they seek is usually of two types:  Most often it’s about problem solving.  They call up at any hour to ‘run an idea past me’.  We analyse the situation together, and they quickly decide how they will handle it.  The second, less common, type of mentoring they seek is the ‘meaning of life’ type… often when things are going badly for them.  They’ll usually come round to my house, drink coffee, and ask whether the pain they’re inflicting on themselves and their family is all worth it.  Will they get the business built before their life falls apart?

My new entrepreneur sought both types of help but particularly ‘meaning of life’ mentoring.  I was busy with other issues during this time and failed to reflect on what the frequent focus on ‘meaning of life’ mentoring portended.  Since entrepreneurs are self-reliant and self-confident, their self-doubts are typically very rooted in the specific stress of the moment.  When I help them to review why they are feeling uncertain, they quickly find the underlying business and personal issues and race off to fix them.  But mentoring my new entrepreneur didn’t work that way.  It started to be more like generic ‘life coaching’.

Trying to be an entrepreneur when you’re not really sure about what you want to do, or what you are capable of, is pretty hard.  As the pressures of the situation increased, my aspiring entrepreneur became increasingly self-absorbed, and less of a problem solver.  The business suffered, and it suffered further because the Board (and particularly me) failed to appreciate that the person running our business had changed their behaviour from that of an entrepreneur to that of a troubled employee.

The effect of the new behaviours would have been obvious if we’d seen the entrepreneur as an employee, and focused on managing by measuring.  But we missed the cues in the entrepreneur’s new behaviours, and continued to believe the business was being run as energetically as it had been at first.  When our monthly management reports became sparse and full of gaps, we accepted the claim that “This is a start-up , and I have to focus on getting results with few resources.  I didn’t have time to write the report.”  With issues not being highlighted in a timely way, a performance crisis in the company came suddenly.

And all this was not pre-empted because I failed in mentoring.  I failed to appreciate that my ‘entrepreneur’ had become a ‘manager’ and I continued to provide the on-demand, non-prescriptive support that entrepreneurs thrive on, rather than recognising that I was now dealing with an employee who was both going through a crisis in confidence, and hiding non-performance.

The relationship ended badly, and everyone involved lost money.  But the ‘entrepreneur’ was less upset about failing in the role than at not receiving the mentoring that was expected.  I suspect my ‘entrepreneur’ wanted the benefits that come from entrepreneurship (freedom of action and equity returns) as well as employee benefits(complete support systems, being managed, and reliable income)… and who wouldn’t! The ‘mentoring’ sought was really  management and life coaching, and labelling it as mentoring led to conflicting expectations and a poor outcome.

I had been quite careful in the past to clarify expectations with people I’ve mentored, and to monitor changes in those expectations over time.  This time I did not, and we each paid a significant price for the misunderstanding that resulted.


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