I have a friend in Chicago who likes to say that the timing of advisors and mentors for your startup is critical. Bring them in too early, he says, and they can destroy your business. Bring them in too late and they can’t do enough to save it.
No one knows when the right time is to bring them in, how many to use, and where to find them. But in our three years of running The Junto Institute, where over 50 mentors from the Chicago area have contributed to our program, we’ve become better at identifying great advisors and mentors.
We distinguish mentors from advisors based on purpose and compensation. In our view, advisors are often focused on the company and compensated with fees, equity, meals, etc. Mentors are often focused on the people, and are volunteering their time.
That said, here are seven specific things that we do which we recommend for any company that is building an advisory board or group of mentors.
1. We organize for relevance
At The Junto Institute, we classify mentors in three ways: industry, market, and functional expertise.
Industry experts are those who can help you better compete because they have experience in your industry. If you have a tech-based food delivery startup, they have worked for GrubHub, a produce distributor, or Domino’s Pizza.
Market experts are those who can help you understand and find customers because they’ve been in their shoes or have experience serving them. Again, for food delivery, these people have owned mom-and-pop restaurants, are busy professionals, or have been salespeople for restaurant suppliers.
Functional experts have deep experience in a specific function that’s critical to your business. These folks might be a seasoned CTO, VP of Sales, CFO with fundraising experience, or user experience guru.
2. We look for aligned interests
Our leadership training program is built on the idea that entrepreneurs learn the most from people with deep operating experience who have “been there, done that.” So we seek out those who want to share their experiences with startup founders and leaders, and enjoy giving back. They’ve achieved enough success in their careers that they’re able to volunteer a couple hours a month, and don’t have a need to be compensated or promote their services. Fortunately, that matches up well with the people we’ve attracted as mentors.
We often get asked, “What do the mentors get out of it?” and from what they’ve told us, it’s three things: (1) “giving back”; (2) learning from the mentoring experience; and (3) meeting new contacts. We intentionally look for mentors who talk about these areas when we first meet them. If, however, we learn or believe that a prospective mentor is seeking clients or business opportunities, we typically pass because it’s not aligned with our program or our companies’ needs. It’s also why we don’t have career consultants, scholars, or self-proclaimed “experts” among our mentors.
3. We take our time
We all know that it’s best to “hire slow and fire fast.” Finding a mentor is no different from hiring an employee. We take our time finding the right mentors. If we don’t know them well, we insist on face-to-face meetings, check out their LinkedIn profile (not just what they’ve done but also who they know), and of course, Google them. If they’re people we know or who have been referred to us, we still meet with them, confirm that they have the requisite experience, and care more about giving than taking. Mentoring relationships pay off in the long-term so the more time you invest in the short-term, the better the results.
4. We mine our networks
Virtually all startups have dozens of trusted relationships that can uncover potential advisors, and we were no different. Our first mentors were found in our existing networks. We still spend considerable time combing through our LinkedIn profiles, Facebook friends, and phone contacts to find prospective mentors when we need to. It’s worth the time investment because these are people we already know (to varying degrees) and we’re confident they’ll respond to our initial request. We doubt you are any different.
5. We pursue referrals
Just like the best customers come from word of mouth, the best mentors and advisors are found the same way: trusted referrals. The key word here is “trusted”: asking people who you know well and want the best for your business. They are often your most critical stakeholders like co-founders, employees, investors, customers, and current advisors. If they have experience with someone who was a mentor or advisor to them, and they got value from the relationship, there’s no better endorsement.
6. We match carefully
In the JuntoApprenticeship program, each company is matched with six mentors. Five work together on a Mentor Team and the sixth is an individual CEO Mentor, matched up with the JuntoCompany’s CEO. We spend a lot of time in the matching process for two reasons: (1) increase the likelihood of a good fit between mentors and proteges, and (2) increase the likelihood of a good fit among the mentors.
This last point is worth emphasizing. Our experience is that startups often “collect” advisors or mentors on an individual basis without giving much thought to how well they’ll work together (if on an advisory board, for instance) or how well they complement each other from the standpoint of industry, market, and functional expertise. We spend a great deal of time thinking through how well the people will get along, complement one another, and increase the effectiveness of the mentoring process. This has become a strength of our program so we strongly encourage that startups pay close attention to how well they believe their advisors and mentors complement each other.
7. We have high standards
We don’t allow advice in the Junto program. Instead, we want our mentors to ask questions and share experiences so our Apprentices can improve their thinking and decision-making skills. We also tell them we start on time and end on time. We tell them our program lasts nine months and it’s important to attend virtually all the meetings to have an impact. We talk about all of this early in the recruiting process for mentors and advisors so they know what to expect.
We do this to demonstrate that there are standards for an optimal mentoring experience to occur for both sides. Based on their body language and the conversation, we can usually tell how comfortable they are with these standards. If we see any hint of reservation on their part, it’s probably not a fit for us.
We do these seven things because we take mentoring seriously, we want mentors in our program who take it seriously, and we want the process to have serious impact on the startups who enroll in our program. Based on their feedback, that seems to be the case.
Our mentorship program is often cited as one of the strengths of the JuntoApprenticeship because of the people, the process, and the results. We’ve learned that the more structured, disciplined, and process-based that mentoring is, the better the results and the faster that those results occur.