Mentoring is Critical! Find out how in part 2 of our mentoring series.

In February 1979, Nandan Nilekani, then a young IIT graduate, was hired by the legendary NR Narayana Murthy at Patni Computer Systems. And thus, the duo embarked on a meaningful mentor-mentee relationship that has lasted over four decades. Over the years, as Nilekani progressed from co-founder, Infosys, to donning the mantle of non-executive Chairman of the IT major, he and Murthy epitomised what it takes to nurture a successful mentor-mentee relationship.

While Nilekani blossomed under the able tutelage of his mentor, he also delivered beyond expectations, validating the faith Murthy had invested in him.

According to intrepid entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, “Mentees should walk into the mentoring experience knowing who they are, where they want to be, and then become a sponge to absorb the experience.” This approach, he believes, is half the battle won as this will bring out the best in both mentors and mentees and result in a mutually beneficial relationship.

In the context of the startup landscape, what kind of traits do mentors seek in mentees? What motivates mentors to choose a particular mentee?

Motivating mentors

Respect boundaries: The backbone of a mentor-mentee equation lies in respecting the boundaries of this professional partnership. In their eagerness to learn from a mentor’s experience and guidance, mentees should be mindful of the former’s time and space. Mentors are busy professionals, who, in most instances, are happy to mentor sans financial compensation. Therefore, mentees must understand the demands of time on mentors and desist from chasing them at every given opportunity! Mentees who get this are the ones who mentors will pick to impart their valuable life lessons.

Value time: Not just fledgeling entrepreneurs, but even seasoned industry professionals respect their mentors’ time. For example, John W. Thompson, Chairman, Microsoft, has mentioned in the media how he and Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft, connect every Sunday morning at 8 o’clock to catch up on various issues. “My job at Microsoft has a unique dimension to it, which is that Satya [Nadella] is a young, first-time CEO … I do spend time with him on what I call mentoring-like things as opposed to board-like things,” said Thompson in an interview.

Be self-motivated: Mentors are also drawn to such mentees who are self-motivated and have the ability to deliver beyond expectations. Those who have the intuitive aptitude to grasp skills beyond what is taught by mentors and deliver out-of-the-box solutions for industry problems will be the favoured mentees.

Work hard: Since time is at a premium for mentors, they tend to have high expectations from mentees. They appreciate mentees who go beyond the call of duty, are dedicated to acquiring new skills and meet each work deadline with minimum hand-holding. It shows their sincerity and commitment to growing their business. After all, mentors cannot be expected to work hard; the real action should come from the startup! For example, Upekkha, a leading Bengaluru-based catalyst, is akin to a team of ‘family doctors’ for the startups they mentor. While they help startups identify their problems and blind spots, and deal with bottlenecks, they like engaging with mentees who are self-aware, do thorough ‘homework’ in the areas where they need help and follow up with mentors on actionable items.

Stay curious: The best mentors not only motivate and groom their proteges, but they also like being challenged. They like engaging with fearless mentees who are curious, ask thought-provoking questions and take bold initiatives to scale their business. World-class mentors are hungry to absorb innovative new ideas from startups that might be unknown territory to them.

Drop your ego: According to Sir Richard Branson, there is no room for ego in a mentoring program. Genuine mentees will not be hesitant to take constructive feedback from their mentors. They should be receptive to new ideas from senior industry professionals who have risked everything to get to where they are in their career.

Trust your instincts: One of the abiding qualities mentors look for in mentees is the ability to run their own ship. For example, real estate magnate Barbara Corcoran, one of the ‘sharks’ in the hit TV reality show ‘Shark Tank’, believes that when it comes to entrepreneurship, there is no blueprint to success. She urges startup founders to trust their instinct and intuition and not solely rely on mentors for every business-related decision. “The entrepreneurs I’ve worked with over time, who are looking for that magic answer from me, they never make money,” she said in an interview.

We are stronger together

Mentoring is not just for startups. If a robust culture of mentoring needs to flourish in the country, all key stakeholders must participate in India’s startup story. The Indian government has taken the lead in strengthening the entrepreneurial spirit in the country by launching the Startup India Scheme. It serves as a dynamic platform for mentors, startups, investors and corporates to come together. Further, Atal Incubation Centres have been established to educate youngsters about entrepreneurship and provide mentoring opportunities. India’s academic ecosystem is also paying it forward through mentorship. For example, Ashoka University runs an Entrepreneur in Residence Program that provides aspiring entrepreneurs access to mentors and networking opportunities.

Several corporates have also launched mentorship programs. For example, Biocon founder Kiran Mazumdar Shaw has been mentoring several healthcare startups. Business magnate Ratan Tata has notably mentored popular eyewear startup Lenskart, among others.

If India has to maintain the startup momentum, it needs to create path-breaking mentorship programs at the industry, community, state and national levels. The nation’s investment in skills and training will come to nought if it fails to mentor the next-gen of India Inc.