Mentoring des entrepreneurs

L’article suivant en anglais est ma contribution au nouveau manuel EPWN qui sera disponible à la rentrée. Ce manuel collaboratif a été initié lors de la première conférence Européenne du réseau à Madrid en février dernier. Tous les “Mentoring Leaders” du réseau en Europe y participent en partageant leurs expériences, meilleures pratiques et expertises. Pour ma part, ma recherche sur le sujet du mentoring pour entrepreneur permet d’ajouter au manuel la dimension entrepreneuriale et de mieux en comprendre les spécificités.

The research on mentoring has always been focused on intra-organisational mentoring and the development of careers for high potentials. More recently, with the rise of the practices of entrepreneurial mentoring, research is slowly catching up and showing some similarities and differences between the two types of mentoring. We will explore in this chapter, how entrepreneurial mentoring differs from its more traditional form of career mentoring, what mentor profiles are expected by mentee-entrepreneurs, what the needs of different types of entrepreneurs are, and what matching criteria are important for entrepreneurial dyads (mentor-mentee pair).

The functions of mentoring for entrepreneurs

The traditional form of mentoring shows 2 types of functions of mentoring (what the mentor does in the relationship and for what benefit to the mentee):

Psychosocial functions: based on trust, intimacy and the interpersonal connection, they include behaviours that enable the mentee in her personal and professional development, as well as the development of her identity, her self-esteem, and her personal efficacy. These mentor behaviours are: offering acceptance and reassurance, giving advice, friendship and being a role model.

Career functions: enabling the mentee to “learn the ropes” of her job and to prepare herself for a promotion. These mentor behaviours include: coaching, sponsoring, increasing visibility of mentee, protection, and assigning challenging missions.

It seems obvious that the psychosocial functions are totally appropriate for mentoring entrepreneurs, however, many of the career functions need to be adapted to the entrepreneurial context. Also it may be more appropriate to name these functions: ‘Entrepreneurial development’ and to adapt its definition to: “learn the ropes of the entrepreneurial role and prepare for the challenges of enterprise development”.

The following items are the entrepreneurial development functions that we adapted from the intra-organisational context and added from field studies:

Guiding: to enable the mentee to develop knowledge and understanding on how to navigate efficiently the entrepreneurial world. Strategies are suggested to accomplish goals.

Network sharing: the opening of her network by the mentor, allowing the mentee-entrepreneur to increase her visibility on a potential market or with potential partners.

Challenging: the mentor in our entrepreneurial context cannot assign missions to the mentee, however, it can be the role of the mentor to challenge her mentee’s thinking or strategy, to enable her to take a different perspective, identify the pitfalls, or be more ambitious.

Expertise: entrepreneurs were also in need of expertise in certain areas that they were not very competent in (marketing, finance, management etc.). The mentor can temporarily compensate this lack of competency or knowledge by giving advice or expert perspective on a specific issue.

In the entrepreneurial context, the mentor cannot  “protect” her mentee.

Appropriate mentor profile: an entrepreneur with an open mind

Mentee-entrepreneurs need to be able to relate to their mentor, and also the mentor needs to be credible in her role of advice-giver in the entrepreneurial area, so the first important element in the profile of an entrepreneurial mentor is that they need to be entrepreneurs themselves. Legitimacy, competency and credibility are words that keep coming back in research interviews with mentees when describing their ideal mentor.

The other important element is that mentors need to have certain relationship competencies such as listening skills, authentic speech, and availability. For the mentee to benefit fully from this relationship, the mentor needs to be open to the mentee, her business, her ideas and her issues, and needs to be able to be straight with her by giving her perspective however positive or difficult to hear it may be.

Lastly the mentor needs to respect her role of mentor by not interfering in the business of the mentee, after all the mentee is the driver of her enterprise. However frustrating it may be for the mentor sometimes, all decisions and actions are the responsibility of the mentee, and to keep the mentoring relationship efficient, the mentor cannot get involved.

Different needs for different types of entrepreneurs

We have noted a few differences between the needs in terms of mentoring from nascent entrepreneurs (still in the ideas, or R&D stage), start-up entrepreneurs (who have created and reached their first client), and enterprise buyers.

Nascent entrepreneurs need a lot of attention as they are in a period of doubt and they do not know yet if their product or service will reach a market. If they have new technologies, and may be lacking a marketing perspective they may get bogged down in the R&D details and never consider the market. Here the mentor will need to counter balance this effect and help them to think about their strategy and important issues at this stage. Acceptance and reassurance, guiding and expertise may be the most important functions of mentoring for these mentees.

Start-up entrepreneurs are a bit more confident than the nascent ones, having created their business and maybe reached their first clients. At this stage, mentee-entrepreneurs may need expertise (depending on their own competencies portfolio), guiding to keep them on track, and if appropriate network sharing from the mentor.

As for enterprise buyers, the needs are very different. Some of them have already owned businesses before, they tend to be a bit older, more experienced, and have more capital. Buying a company requires a lot more funds to start with. So their expectations and needs in terms of mentoring will tend towards having a “sounding board” to help them in their decision-making. So they will need to have a more detached mentor, who can reflect with them about strategy, or a particular sector or industry. They may be looking for challenges, and sometimes network sharing if the mentee is new to an area for example.

Matching criteria important for entrepreneurs

From my latest research, a few important criteria have emerged which can be slightly different than criteria used in intra-organisational mentoring or career mentoring.

In a first qualitative survey with entrepreneurs and their mentors, we have discovered a few criteria that seemed important in the matching process. We have tested these criteria one year later to check the stability of the importance of these criteria. Here are the results below.

For both mentors and mentees, three criteria stay very important:

Complementarity: so that the mentor can help with skills the mentee doesn’t have, and so she can feel and be perceived as useful in the relationship.

Feeling: the individuals need to fit at a human level. This is why we often recommend a meeting with no engagement prior to the official start of the relationship.

Availability: many mentoring relationship fail because the mentor and the mentee do not manage to meet because of busy diaries, and the relationship through lack of meeting starts to die off.

Other criteria which are important but not crucial are worth mentioning: the intellectual interest the mentor may have in the mentee’s project, the proximity which facilitates the face-to-face meetings, and some degree of similarity to facilitate mutual understanding (sector, activity, personality).

Lastly, the mentors have identified some important elements in the matching process, elements that they need to be aware of when making the decision to engage in the mentoring relationship: is the mentee motivated in her project? Does the mentee need mentoring? This will help the mentor decide if she wants to invest her time in the relationship and if she is going to be useful in it (the complementarity element plays a role here too).

Summary

  • Entrepreneurial mentors do not have exactly the same functions as career mentor, as they do not prepare the mentees for the same challenges.
  • Entrepreneurial mentors need to be entrepreneurs themselves.
  • A mentee-entrepreneur has different needs depending on the stage of development of his enterprise.
  • In the matching process of entrepreneurial mentoring, particular attention should be put on the complementarity of the dyad, the possibility of mutual choice, the availability of the mentor, the motivation of the mentee and her need for mentoring.

Author: Stéphanie

Stéphanie has developed an extensive practice of executive coaching in London for more than 10 years. She now coaches CEOs and top executives to help them with team creation and development as well as business agility. She is one the few European expert both implementing and doing research on mentoring programmes.