One of the things we're proudest of at SparkLabKC are the connections we help our entrepreneurs form with established and knowledgeable members of the Kansas City business community. Our startup companies have access to more than 80 mentors from virtually every industry, including seasoned entrepreneurs and successful business leaders. These are some of the most experienced business mentors in the Kansas City region, and they bring a wide range of experience from Internet startups to major corporations and universities including the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the University of Kansas, and the University of Missouri-Columbia.
The SparkLabKC mentors go deep into each company and leverage their knowledge and connections to open doors that accelerate success. These relationships may last for the duration of the accelerator program, or continue well beyond it. For those who just graduated as part of our Class of 2015, or anyone who is beginning a mentoring relationship, I'd like the share my advice about making the most of it.
1. Build Relationships for the Long Haul
As your grow your business, your relationship with your mentor will provide a valuable lifeline for support, networking opportunities, and professional development. Often, the mentoring relationship begins to fade once the mentee achieves their own personal success — but it doesn't need to be this way. By creating a solid mentorship, both you and your mentor will continue to benefit from each other's knowledge, experience, and energy.
2. See Each Other as People Rather than Roles
The mentor/mentee relationship often dies out not because it is no longer valuable but instead because one fails to see the other as a person, first. The primary danger in a mentorship is that either party, but especially the mentee, may see the other as a means to an end. A relationship solely based on what one person can provide for the other is doomed to fail as soon as that goal is achieved. A sustained relationship, however, can continue to provide value for both parties as long as they are willing to grow and change together.
As entrepreneur and coach Dixie Gillaspie writes in Entrepreneur, mentors should be role models rather than idols. She writes,
"[A mentor] can’t do much for you stuck up on a pedestal. To benefit from having a mentor in your life you need to believe that you can do what they have done. Respect is vital, but idolatry blocks your ability to see yourself stepping into their shoes."
This idolatry also denies the humanity of the mentor. Mentors make mistakes, and have strengths and weaknesses of their own. Both the mentor and mentee can learn from each others strengths and avoid the pitfalls of each other's weaknesses, but only if there is an ongoing person-to-person dialogue. Seeing either party as a static idol, or as a means to an end, makes this dialogue impossible and can result in someone feeling taken for granted or used. This is why the first rule of thumb for mentees is to express their appreciation. Thank your mentors sincerely and often, and ask them how you can help them as well!
3. Set New Goals as Needed
Gay Gaddis in Forbes points out that it's necessary to develop both short term and long term goals — and to keep your mentor in the loop. They can't help you if they don't know where they're helping you to. In order to sustain your mentorship relationship, it will become necessary to update your goals. Gaddis writes,
"It is key that you are completely honest with your mentor about every aspect of your career – your goals, aspirations and even strengths and weaknesses. [Use] the SMART acronym as a guide for goals. Make them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound in order for them to make a direct impact on your life."
Often, a mentor may begin to feel unnecessary as their mentee achieves success. For both to continue adding value to each other's professional lives, they must accept that their goals and their roles will shift with time. Don't forget that your mentor may have some goals of their own that you, too, can give them your unique perspective on. Make time to check in with your mentor on a regular basis to see how you can continue to help each other achieve your goals.
4. Create a Culture of Mentorship
Mentorship doesn't need to be a rigorous process, nor does it always need to be one-on-one. Communities of entrepreneurs benefit from developing a culture of mentorship, as we have done at SparkLabKC. As a our graduates grow into their own and experience the ups and downs of startup development, they frequently come back and mentor our current companies. Their earned experience is vital to the growth and development of "younger" companies, and because they've been through the program themselves, they can provide invaluable advice and insight.
A culture of mentorship implicitly acknowledges that mentorship isn't just a one way street. A mentor gains inspiration from the fresh energy and perspective of their mentee, while the mentee gains from the connections, knowledge, and experience of their more established counterpart. As both progress, the relationship itself may change in ways that continually adds value for both parties. Ultimately, the mentor/mentee bond can be strong enough to create an alliance that will serve everyone well throughout all of their future endeavors.