I often talk about the importance of making time for what’s important to you, and mentorship is high on that list for me. I genuinely enjoy passing on knowledge and sharing what I’ve learned in my lifetime to help students, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and aspiring venture capitalists move forward.
Mentoring for me looks like carving out time to speak to students at the UW Foster School of Business, working closely with budding entrepreneurs in the tech and startup scene, and advising handfuls of individuals I connect with at events. In the past, all these opportunities amounted to when I launched Neal’s Running Start: an intensive mentorship program that brought entrepreneurs from around the world to Silicon Valley to learn from me and my network.
So, speaking from my experiences, here’s my take on mentorship and how it benefits people both personally and professionally. And at the end, my hope is that you might walk away thinking: “I wouldn’t mind doing something like this.”
How To Choose Who To Mentor
As a mentor, you will learn just as much from your mentee as they do from you, which is why the key to a good experience is choosing someone you mutually respect, value, and also want to learn from.
It’s crucial to decide if someone is sincere about building a relationship; you will get a lot of phony exchanges from people who want money or are really only interested in what they can personally gain in the shortest amount of time. Sometimes, you might come across individuals willing to learn, but you know that you won’t be a good fit to work together because of personalities or other factors. Other times, you might run into people who think they know it all, so you know they won’t be worth your time to change their minds.
Give someone the benefit of the doubt, though—I never cut anyone off after first impressions. You can get a good read on someone through the first few conversations and as you get to know each other better to tell if they’re authentic or not.
At its core, mentorship is all about relationship building. Everyone needs support achieving their goals, and mentoring someone is an opportunity to help people change their views or modify their thinking to do so. Sharing and comparing different backgrounds, environments, and experiences is invaluable for guiding someone in a new direction. Then, it’s pretty cool to see your mentee progress or get a promotion and move up. Pat yourself on the back—you helped make that happen!
Being Coachable vs. Uncoachable
When I mentioned someone not being a good fit or a know-it-all, this lends to the idea of coachability. Being coachable is about having a growth mindset: are you open-minded and willing to do the work, learn, and receive feedback?
Like that one saying, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” you can’t change an unwilling person’s mind. I usually give my mentees homework—something along the lines of: “I want you to call me in x days (30, 60, or 90—whenever makes sense) to tell me what you’ve learned so we can see what worked.” Those who come back with takeaways and questions show their readiness for coaching and make it worth both our time.
While you’re helping a mentee fix what’s wrong, don’t forget to tell them when they’re doing well. Rewarding them for grinding and getting things done is a great way to build their confidence to take risks and move forward. And then at some point, you’ll reach that “wow, they don’t need me” moment, which means you’ve done your job as a mentor well.
A Mutually Beneficial Partnership
As a mentee, the benefits of receiving guidance, direction, and advice are clear: they have someone encouraging their growth, access to specialized knowledge and insights, support setting up their goals, get their foot in the door with influential connections, and are kept accountable with a trusted ally on their side. They can lean on their mentors to provide practical advice to overcome challenges and reach their full potential.
As a mentor, we gain just as much: we strengthen our knowledge and continue learning, expand our networks, flex and develop our interpersonal and leadership skills, build our confidence, and engage in activities that we know contribute to a greater good.
Mentorship truly is a two-way street—benefitting both mentee and mentor—but it also goes much further than that.
Benefits Beyond the Mentor and Mentee
It’s also well worth mentioning the significant gains that come when companies and firms develop mentorship programs. Formal mentorship programs are a fabulous way to increase employee engagement and push diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives.
For many people, finding a mentor informally (through networks or personally reaching out) is hard, and it’s especially difficult for employees from diverse backgrounds, such as women and minority groups. Comparatively, it’s easier for white males to find mentorship informally, which is why it’s a huge need to develop more formal programs to find mentors because they greatly benefit underrepresented groups.
By bridging the gap between employees of different generations, backgrounds, and experience levels, you provide employees with the structure and support needed to put DEI initiatives into practice and welcome all unique perspectives. Openly shared ideas directly impact your people and the organization as a whole.
The men and women I mentor have come from all different areas: some have been former students, others have been entrepreneurs who needed a push, and a few have approached me after events I’ve spoken at and tenaciously gotten my attention. Mentorship doesn’t light everyone up, but it still excites me anytime a relationship becomes a mentorship opportunity—I’m happy to share my years of knowledge and experience because what good is it if I keep it for myself? And as I said, if someone blossoms and makes progress with your help, it’s pretty cool to watch.
So, is mentoring something you’ve done or would want to try your hand at? If you have questions about being a mentor, finding one, or my experience, let me know.