Do You Really Need Mentors?

by Vasco Sommer-Nunes

We have all been there: You stared a new job or have been assigned the responsibility for a major project. It is only natural to feel overwhelmed by the tasks at time. Especially when starting a new business, having a mentor to guide and support you seems to be very helpful. That is why many accelerator and incubation programs onboard experienced founders to help their teams succeed. But, do these mentors really help?

Why mentor in the first place?

Briefly, and in plain words -to grow faster. Mentors help the teams make better decisions and save time by avoiding pitfalls. While there is value in making mistakes and learning from them, not all mistakes are worthwhile experiencing. It helps to avoid unnecessary mistakes by addressing the right challenges. Mistakes and failures are inevitable, but you’d rather make them while heading in the right direction.

Reaching the team

I strongly believe that the key to having success with a team is to actually reach the entity you are attempting to coach. There has to be mutual respect and credibility - an experienced founder has been there, done that and can relate to the overwhelming circumstances founders face.

The founder will know fast when a mentor understands the problems and will sense if the mentors knows what it feels like to sit in a trench with bullets flying over your head.

Aside from the experience, the other key ingredient to reach a team and build a basis for common success is commitment. You need to commit to the team 100%. Stay approachable and available at all times, commit to the team or get out. It is just as evident to the founder if you care about them or as if you are not.

The challenges I faced as a mentor

A perfect world

Basically there are two types of environments I try to operate in, with one being the dominant one and the one I try to work in most: that is an enabling environment, it empowers the team to come arrive at their own decisions faster and in a good way, a way that supports the achievement of their goals. You can help teams develop positive behavioral models and produce a bigger overall output.

Old dog, new tricks

The other environment is the one that I try not to make use of and use only when I believe things are moving in the wrong direction or the team is stuck. It’s the operational level, where you actually provide a solution and solve the problem for them. Adversity is better, but sometimes you need to crack the door open.

The corporate

While these two environments are still scenarios where you have a certain degree of control to shape things and bring things about, outside factors which can be neck breakers to the overall success need to be watched out for. With accelerator programs or incubators, these factors are not necessarily in the market space but in the corporate setting surrounding them. These could be a lack of willingness to follow a certain capable structure when spinning the venture off or imposing certain political restrictions on the team structures. These kinds of challenges are particularly hard to circumvent due to their nature and I believe it’s important to prepare teams for the probabilities for such scenarios to actually arise.

Team cohesion

The other big one is team cohesion. If teams fall apart, it’s often the end. Thus, you really need to understand what is going on with the team members and you won´t get there unless they trust you and open up to you. What you don´t want is that you´re suddenly being served notice of a team member quitting right out of the blue. You need to sense it by being close to a team but also to seek to understand what is going on when you see patterns or events that are ugly.

There´s one sentence by Steven R. Covey which I learned from his book “7 habits of highly effective people” which has deeply influenced my approach to challenges in life and which has been very powerful in solving them, both personally and professionally: “First, seek to understand, then be understood”.

I remember sitting on my bed with my girlfriend and waiting 20 minutes for an answer to a question of mine. The answer did come but sitting 20 minutes next to each other without saying a word can feel like a very long time. Sometimes, you need to do similar things with a team member. This sentence was able to change the game many times for me and I invite you to make use of it on your journey.

The great journey ahead

If mentors can bring these ingredients to the table - experience and commitment, I believe they are equipped to embark on a rewarding journey together with a team where everybody will not only grow a business but also grow as a person. So yes- mentors can be helpful. And not to forget: it can be a fun and rewarding time you will like to recall.

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Vasco's Background

Vasco is an experienced Entrepreneur in Residence and thus mentor for our Venture Teams. Being a tech-entrepreneur, founder with two startup exits and Angel investor Vasco has a lot of experience which he gladly shares with our founders.