Maybe you can tell your team about your desire to partner with us.

As soon as these words left my mouth, I realised that I had made a major faux pas. The words were addressed to the visiting CEO of one of our major prospects; one we had been trying to get interested in our products and services for nearly a year.

I was young and probably viewed myself as the hotshot marketing guy and the words had rushed out due to my frustration at dealing with the lack of coherence within their company.

Our chairman, who had put his personal credibility on the line to bring this gentleman in, was still reeling from the shock and the look on the face of our CEO made his desire to eviscerate me amply clear. In this instance, except for some ruffled egos, no permanent damage resulted from my inopportune directness. It could have been a lot worse.

It is through such avoidable mistakes that many of us learn the nuances and subtleties of doing business. In this particular instance, our chairman — luckily — did not confine himself to dressing me down (in private), but counselled me on what I had done wrong and how it could have been handled better, even while getting my message across.

I wish I could say such specific feedback and mentoring happens all the time in companies, let alone start-ups, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

A common excuse in most start-ups is that “We are running at a hundred miles an hour, you just have to dive in and swim.”

So training, if at all, is mostly confined to a quick orientation session: “This is where the bathrooms are, here is where the hardware team sits and finance is over in that corner and oh, here’s your team and your desk. Good luck!” But it is in start-ups that we need to pay attention to mentoring.

The very word with its connotations of ongoing and consistent, if not continuous, investment of an already overworked person’s time seems such a luxury — which explains why most of us fail to give mentoring its due. Big mistake! Particularly since start-ups, with a small group of people, try to hire the best, and that Linux guru or penny pinching accountant we hired are often worth their weight in gold for their technical skills, but are often just not fit for normal human company.

When you have taken the trouble to hire the best, you often find they have come with as large a set of challenges to overcome as they have key skills.

And if they happen to be fresh graduates, then you have your work cut out!

Who mentors whom?
You have resolved that mentoring is the way to go to take your company to the next level. Now all you have to figure out is who needs to be mentored. This may not always be an easy thing to figure out. A simple rule of thumb I’d suggest is that anyone who has moved into a new role, particularly if he or she is being promoted, needs to be mentored. While this is true even for lateral moves such as the engineer who moves into marketing or the finance guy who wants to move into sales, all individuals you hope to grow into a leadership role have to be mentored. Lest you groan loudly or at the very least roll your eyes at the thought of all that overhead, mentoring, while very important, if done right need not be a major time drain.

Who should do the mentoring?
Conventional wisdom (or if we are to believe Hollywood) paints a mentor as middle-aged guy, greying if not balding, teaching the young buck a thing or two. Experience matters, not just to be knowledgeable, but for credibility as well. Such experience could reside in a young but proven manufacturing supervisor who has managed a unionised workforce, just as easily it could in a white collar vice-president of engineering. So knowledge that stems from direct experience, a willingness to share and patience are key attributes that a mentor should possess for the whole mentoring programme to work. It certainly helps if the mentor is well thought of in the organisation and experienced in multiple domains if not in multiple departments. Many a time, a mentor may come from outside the organisation — for instance, an up and coming woman manager may only find a mentor who has both the experience and empathy outside her company. An executive staff member may look to a member of the board for guidance and mentoring. The key to successfully mentoring your future stars is for such mentoring to be sought by the employee rather than it being prescribed like medicine! Of course, your actions and culture will have a good deal to do with whether people seek such mentoring.

How do you mentor?
In one word, gingerly. Mentoring has far too much in common with parenting, most of all in that there are many ways to mess it up, calling for therapy for all concerned! As this has not stopped us from having children, clearly it is not sufficient cause to avoid mentoring.

Albert J. Bernstein and Sydney Craft Rozen in their book Dinosaur Brains – Dealing with All Those Impossible People at Work talk about the rules of a mentoring relationship. They advise prospective mentors to think in terms of a contract and ask “What would you like me to do,” so that a mentoring relationship doesn’t fall into a parent-child role or a courtship role in the case of people of opposite genders. As a mentor, they warn, if you don’t consciously think and state your expectations, you may end up with vague emotional ties that result in anger or guilt from unmet expectations.

Once all the parties have stated their expectations, mentoring can be a very enlightening, fulfilling and rewarding experience. For practical reasons, it is important to have some regularity (monthly, quarterly) to your interactions and sustain these meetings, whether in person or on the phone, even when there seems to be “nothing” to discuss. Being available in times of crises certainly helps, but there is a fine line between being helpful and becoming a crutch, that you should not cross and must monitor to keep both of you honest. Asking questions, open-ended ones at that, is a sure fire way to do this, rather than providing the solutions that you know will work.

Mentoring Successfully
If mentoring at times seems like crossing a minefield, you need only to talk to parents of adolescents to know you have the easier job. With all the energy and emotions that need to be expended, mentoring, when done well, pays off in spades. Otherwise, every one of your promising employees is learning all the lessons the hard way. Mentoring with its real life coaching, the occasional nudge and shove will make it a lot less painful and a lot more productive. The hard part of mentoring is resisting the urge to act yourself when decisive action is called for; for the person being mentored, these are the best opportunities to learn, so allow them to do so by cajoling, pleading or where required threatening if plain old reasoning doesn’t work. The harder part is knowing when the bird is ready to leave the nest and providing the autonomy and respect for them to do just that. Mentors who can do that are the ones who are truly successful.

This article first appeared in the Hindu BusinessLine in August 2008.