I always struggled to understand what a mentor, consultant, coach, or partner could do for me at different moments of my career.
Now that I have transitioned to all of them, I think I have a clearer picture of what to expect.
It is a very personal relationship, non-transactional, that is built on trust. Traditionally, mentors were people a bit further ahead in their careers that could guide you in how to make decisions. Today, many people seek younger mentors to help them navigate changing landscapes. Mentors don’t always have the answers, but they can help you find them by yourself.
For me, the most important aspect is that mentors work with people, not with companies, and they keep the individual‘s goals at heart.
Currently, I am mentoring two people. We have informal meetings once or twice a month. Sometimes the topics of discussion are known beforehand, sometimes it’s just a touch base scenario.
In both cases, they are scientists (a PhD and a postdoc) who are considering starting their own companies. One is in a field very close to where I’ve always worked, so I have specific insights. The other is coming from a completely different path, but we have lots of shared experiences.
What is important for me, as a mentor, is that I am not supposed to have the answers for everything, nor should I expect people to do things my way. Sometimes just asking few questions is much more valuable than trying to fix an issue.
It took me a while to understand how to approach mentoring.
But once you see the power of asking questions from a fresh perspective, you understand how useful your role is.
It is a contractual relationship, built on a very specific topic. When you work with consultants, you expect concrete outcomes. You specify at the beginning of the engagement what the scope is, and you expect the person to be an expert on those topics. A consultant can serve as a shortcut, when you need specific skills that your team lacks for a short time, or when you want a fresh perspective.
Consultants work for companies (sometimes they are companies themselves), and bear almost no responsibility on the outcomes of the project.
During my PhD and my first years after, I accumulated a lot of insight in a very specific topic of software development. As a consultant, I can very quickly help companies find the answers to complex problems. Mixed with my entrepreneurial background, I have a comprehensive view of what businesses may require.
Sometimes I have been asked to execute a solution, but most of the time they want me to validate their process, or they want me to address very specific concerns that may have an impact in their long-term.
I am not personally involved in the projects, once my allotted hours are over, it’s the company’s responsibility to execute on what I’ve delivered.
On the other hand, I get a lot of exposure to different problems, and I have the chance to think about smart solutions, which has a compounding effect.
It is a relationship similar to that of a mentor, but built around a specific theme and they work with individuals as well as companies. It is common to find leadership, management, performance, or transformational coaches. In many cases a coach will build relationships over a long time. They are expected to know the environment in which they work, and provide useful guidance in that context. It is very common for managers in companies to have the role of coaches to their teams.
A coach is a person that allows you or a company, reach new goals, tackle challenges, and become better at what you do.
Coaching is where I have the least experience. I was a coach to a startup for half a year. In that capacity, my role was to engage periodically with the founders and to challenge them. We had frequent meetings, and I would prepare each session to review what was done since last one, and to give new directions for the next meeting.
It worked because the founders were following my same exact entrepreneurial path, and I had a lot of empathy for them.
Coaching can be tiring, almost as much as it is to execute the plans, and it is extremely important to find people who are coachable. The dialogue is a two way street that must be nurtured as the relationship progresses.
It is a relationship built on doing businesses together, and it can become very intimate. Especially for young entrepreneurs, the role of a partner sometimes gets diffused into the role of a mentor or a coach, although I strongly advise against it. A partner is someone with whom you split responsibilities, you share the burden and the rewards of your activity.
Selecting partners must be done carefully. Collaborating can propel you forward, but the wrong partnership can jeopardize your ideas.
I started my first entrepreneurial adventure alone, and quickly understood that having someone alongside was infinitely valuable.
After my first experience, it became paramount for every new idea I had to first try to find someone with whom to do it.
A partnership is built on trust, shared values, and a shared vision. A partner for a business does not need to be a friend or a close colleague, and sometimes it helps if it’s people from different backgrounds, adding different perspectives.
It is a great challenge to understand who can be a partner, it normally takes time and, as most entrepreneurs know, time is always lacking.