(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This story originally appeared on his blog.)
Lots of entrepreneurs believe they want a mentor. In fact, they’re actually asking for a teacher or a coach. A mentor relationship is a two-way street. To make it work, you have to bring something to the party.Recently when I was at a conference taking questions from the audience, I got a question that I had never heard before. Someone asked, “How do I get you, or someone like you to become my mentor?” It made me pause (actually cringe.) As I gathered my thoughts, I realized that I’ve never thought much about the mentors I had, how I got them, and the difference between mentors, coaches and teachers.
What I do today is teach. At Stanford and Berkeley, I have students, with classes and office hours. For the brief time in the quarter I have students in my class, at worst I impart knowledge to them. At best, I try to help them to discover and acquire the knowledge themselves.
I try to engage them to see the startup world as part of a larger pattern; the lifecycle of how companies are born, grow and die. I attempt to offer them both theory, as well as a methodology, about building early stage ventures. And finally, I have them experience all of this first hand by teaching them theory side-by-side with immersive hands-on using Customer Development to find a business model.
At times, the coffees, lunches and phone calls I have with current and past students are also a form of teaching. Most of the time students come with, “Here’s the problem I have. Can you help me?” Usually, I’ll give a direct answer, but sometimes my answer is a question.
In both cases, inside or outside the classroom, I consider those activities as teaching. At least for me, mentorship is something quite different.
As an entrepreneur in my 20’s and 30’s, I was lucky to have four extraordinary mentors, each brilliant in his own field and each a decade or two older than me. Ben Wegbreit taught me how to think, Gordon Bell taught me what to think about, Rob Van Naarden taught me how to think about customers and Allen Michels showed me how to turn thinking into direct, immediate and outrageous action.
At this time in my life, I was the world’s biggest pain in the rear, lessons needed to be communicated by baseball bat, yet each one of these people not only put up with me, but also engaged me in a dialog of continual learning. Unlike coaching, there was no specific agenda or goal, but they saw I was competent and open to learning and they cared about me and my long-term development.
I’m not sure it was a conscious effort on their part, (I know it wasn’t on mine,) but it continued for years, and in some cases (with my partner Ben Wegbreit) for decades. What is interesting in hindsight is that although the relationship continued for a long time, neither of us explicitly acknowledged it.
Now I realize that what made these relationships a mentorship is this: I was giving as good as I was getting. While I was learning from them – and their years of experience and expertise – what I was giving back to them was equally important.
I was bringing fresh insights to their data. It wasn’t that I was just more up to date on the current technology, markets or trends, it was that I was able to recognize patterns and bring new perspectives to what these very smart people already knew. In hindsight, mentorship is a synergistic relationship.
Like every good student/teacher and mentor/mentee relationship, over time the student became the teacher, and this phase of relationship ends.
All this was running through my head as I tried to think of how to answer the question from the audience.
Finally I replied, “At least for me, becoming someone’s mentor means a two-way relationship. A mentorship is a back and forth dialog – it’s as much about giving as it is about getting. It’s a much higher-level conversation than just teaching. Think about what can we learn together? How much are you going to bring to the relationship?”
If it’s not much, than what you really want/need is a teacher, not a mentor. If it’s a specific goal or skill you want to achieve, hire a coach, but if you’re prepared to give as good as you get, then look for a mentor.
But never ask. Offer to give.
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