Think back to the last time you knelt on the ground and looked into the eyes of a child. This metaphorical “leveling of the playing field” is a simple yet profound act. It seems to say “In this moment, I am you, and you are me.” In several years of mentoring, I have found that my experiences have been quite similar to making eye contact with a child - you don’t know what to expect, but what you find is quite magical.
I have been blessed to shimmy into this special space of mentoring through the course of my professional and personal experiences. My world has been pried open just a bit more with each handshake, each hug and each breakthrough. In the startup and social enterprise spaces, mentoring is almost accorded a box-office “Bright Lights of Broadway” special place, and yet the narrative is devoid of the bones and substance that such a relationship deserves.
Be it the few-hours old corner-garage incubator, or the large conglomerate impact investor, “mentoring” is almost like a conjuring trick, a key, along with the other two keys of pitching and funding, is supposed to open all doors. However, I argue that the mentoring relationship is for life. It is beyond the flushed-cheek glamour. It is almost about pulling back as it is about going all in. Here’s what I have learnt:
- What is your story? The governing narrative of mentoring is about getting things done. There is this tremendous kinetic energy to the relationship between a mentor and mentee. Often a resultant aftermath of social enterprise pitching competitions, an individual often finds themselves in bed with a stranger - someone of great repute, but a stranger still. There is also sharp focus on the next ideation milestone, the next prototype, the next funding target. In this process, I often feel that the relationship intimacy is lost. My interest in my mentoring relationship, is first and foremost, on the person. I have been fortunate to fall into these equations not as a result of competitions, but almost as organic bonds. This has given me enough time to delve into the personal narrative. Goal setting and achievement are important, but I firmly believe that putting the person before the milestones leads to a more enriching and long-term equation.
- The Eternal Handshake: Mentoring is for life. I find that my most meaningful relationships resurface at unexpected times, often with pleasant outcomes. Conventional mentoring relationships have a shelf life, and are businesslike in their execution. While I understand that processes are important for efficiency, lifelong mentors never affix an expiry date on such relationships. It is heartening to participate in the development arc of an individual through different personal and professional stages.
- The Un-Badge Of Honour: It is interesting how the resumes of notable senior professionals is filled with mentoring experiences. In my experience, most of these tend to be transactional experiences. Quite often, these relationships have a specific time commitment, and are milestone and deliverable-based. In many organisations, such relationships between program participants and external mentors falls victim to a poor management process. A few years ago, I was mentor as part of a renowned social enterprise program for a six month period. A young woman managed my interactions with the program fellows. I had precisely one interaction with my mentee, and then she, and the manager, fell of the face of the earth. So, when you shake off the fairy dust, the mentoring relationship is simple and complicated at the same time - it is showing up, investing time, energy and compassion and just being there for your mentee. The processes are important, but only play a supporting role in the relationship.
- Unpopularity Contest: However, the mentoring relationship is not all about golden twilight and riding into the sunset. A lot of times, you need to tell your mentee what they don’t like to hear. The journey of discovery is a heady rush, and people (especially entrepreneurs), ride ecstatically on the wing and a prayer of small breakthroughs. While it is important to pat one on the back for such triumphs, it is also imperative to hear the not-so-pleasant home truths. It is likely that your mentoring relationship might change, but this is important for your mentee’s growth.
- Time to Bid Adieu: Despite your best efforts, some mentoring relationships fall by the wayside, or simply run their course. This is perfectly fine. Mentoring can be an ego-stroking endeavour, but it isn’t always about you - the mentor. It is time to let go, and wish your mentee well. Of course, real life isn’t so clinical - ever so often, I begrudge the mentees who forgot to write the thank you email, or just disappeared from my orbit. However, each of these experiences has perhaps moulded me not only into the mentor that I am, but also the person.