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Future founders series: getting the most of your mentor

23 August 2019


The recent ‘Future Founders’ report from Octopus made it clear that more young people would be willing to become entrepreneurs if they could turn to the people around them for guidance, insight and inspiration. As part of our Future Founders campaign, George Whitehead (Octopus Ventures) and Emma Burt (Octopus Labs, our Technology Centre of Expertise) explain how to get the most from the mentor/mentee relationship.

What do you want from your mentor?

Setting a goal or goals for your mentoring relationship is vital. You should start by writing down exactly what it is that you want out of the relationship. Do you want to learn specific skills? Do you want help with a particular project or career move?

Emma says, “when I was searching for a mentor recently, I thought long and hard about what I needed. I knew that I wanted my mentor to be a woman, and I wanted her to be someone relatively senior working in the technology space, because that’s my area. I also knew I need some guidance on how to make my next career move and what my career progression could look like. That list of requirements made it easier to choose the right mentor and establish the foundations for our relationship”.

You’ve found your mentor, so now what?

Emma believes that working with a new mentor is like any relationship, you need to give it time. “We started out with what we called a ‘bedding-in period’, when we got to know each other. To me this made perfect sense, after all, how many people do you divulge big stuff to the first time you meet? It doesn’t happen. You need to see if there’s chemistry between you, as well as matching values and goals”.

Preparing for your meetings

Getting the most from the time with your mentor is down to really clear communication. Emma says, “before I meet my mentors, I think about what I want out of the meeting. I focus on a few things I need to pick their brain about and begin our conversation from there. Their time is usually precious, so accounting for every minute of it is a good way of showing how much you respect the time they give you”.

Don’t worry about appearing foolish

It’s very easy to feel intimidated in the company of someone who is older, wiser, and has done the things in business that you haven’t begun to even think about. But starting off with an inferiority complex could result in you getting less out of the mentor relationship than you need. It’s worth bearing in mind that your mentor had to start somewhere too.

The advice George received from his first-ever mentor has stuck with him: “they simply told me, ‘never be afraid to ask’. It’s obvious, but it’s unbelievable how important this has been to everything I’ve done since. It may be asking for help or asking dumb questions. It could be asking for feedback. It could be asking for advice when I get stuck in something. Having the courage to ask gives me the chance to do better”. Take it as another opportunity to build your courage and resilience.

How often should you meet up?

How often you meet is also down to your goals. Emma sees her mentor every one or two months, depending on time constraints, and she finds it’s the right amount of time to absorb information from meeting to meeting.

Emma explains: “I come away from the meetings really enthused and excited, and then I need to digest those thoughts. It takes time to apply them and have enough to go back with. But I’m talking about my career, and about me taking a long-term view, so the things we discuss don’t change drastically or overnight. Depending on the input you need you might meet monthly, but if you’ve got a specific outcome in mind, your needs could be more urgent.”

What does your mentor get from it?

Emma notes, “people can be surprised by what a mentor gets from your work together. First of all, if someone comes up and says, ‘I think you’re really amazing at this, can you teach me?’ it’s incredibly flattering. But you do have to think about how it can be mutually beneficial. Coaching is beneficial for the person being coached, with mentoring both people must get something out of it”.

You might struggle to know what you can offer, especially to someone who’s hugely senior to you. Emma believes that can be a great set-up, though: “if there’s an industry veteran who can coach the latest newcomer into the business that might be really appealing for them. Equally, if you’ve got a talent they might benefit from – the latest digital skills or new software experience – maybe it’s that”.

How long will the relationship last?

Even if you started out by setting a goal or goals for your relationship, how long you work together all comes back to how well your goals get met. As the business grows, your needs are likely to change. You may find that what you need from your mentor changes too.

As Emma explains: “mentoring relationships do go on for years and years and years, but in six months, you might both agree you’ve got what you want out of it. Or something else may have come up that that person can still help you with”.

Some mentor/mentee relationships just peter out. If that happens, Emma thinks it’s fine to call time on the relationship: “you shouldn’t be afraid to say, ‘you know what? This has been a great six months, I’ve really valued your input, but I think that mutually beneficial thing isn’t happening for us anymore’. Even if the relationship reaches its endpoint, I really do think that every mentoring relationship has value. Something’s been passed on from one person to another, and that’s the point of mentoring”.

With the right mentor, your commitment can drive everything. George believes, “the barrier to getting help is entirely of your own making – you could do it if you weren’t afraid. A lot of mentoring is just about helping people to change their self-perception”.