“Communication is the results that you get, not the words that you speak.” – John Grinder
Before teaching a graduate school class at UW, or mentoring an entrepreneur, or giving a workshop, I take a few minutes to repeat the above advice as a simple mantra. It is a reminder to focus on those I am interacting with and not on what I want to say.
“People need what they need, not what I happen to be best at.” – Author Unknown
Almost every teaching or mentoring interaction starts with me wanting to give my best, forgetting that may not be what the “student” needs. On my best days, I chuckle and back off and remember to do a little human centered design. My grounding “outcome frame” questions are:
- What do you want to create today?
- How will you know that you created it?
- What resources do you have to get started now?
- What other opportunities will this lead to?
As the first phase of a longitudinal research study with 9Mile Labs comes to an end, I reflected back to Kauffman Foundation research I encountered at the beginning of the project. In the report “Making of an Entrepreneur” the researchers asked 500+ successful entrepreneurs retrospectively what factors influenced their success. Most entrepreneurs answered “extremely important” or “very important” to all of the factors like:
- Importance of prior work experience
- Importance of lessons learned from previous successes
- Importance of company’s management team
- Importance of good fortune
- Importance of Professional and Personal social networks
However, the question that caught my attention was “what was the importance of Advice/Assistance Provided by Company Investors (all responses):
Over half of the successful entrepreneurs didn’t think that investor advice was important or applicable. I was stunned at these numbers. Then I remembered my own experiences with investors and consultants that were forced upon us by our investors. I wanted their money, not their advice. I listened to their advice and then dismissed it. They didn’t understand my business and my unique circumstances. Much of what they had to say was platitudes. Worse, for every five people giving advice there were ten different conflicting opinions. I would nod and appear interested until the money was deposited and then go about doing what our business really needed.
Yet, it is not just one directional. Entrepreneurs think that investors and mentors really want to hear their “pitch” rather than have a conversation and an opportunity for mutual learning.
As we started our video ethnography study with the nine companies in the 9Mile Labs accelerator, this key issue of mentor/entrepreneur communication (or lack thereof) emerged as a research focus. Yet there was something about this theme that was important and elusive.
“Towards the end of grad school, I learned a key lesson about academia. I was discussing a draft of a dissertation chapter with my second reader. Although not my adviser, her work was critical for the arguments that I was building about psychological trauma and technology. Toward the end of the conversation, she said something to the effect of, “You know, this chapter could really use more Heidegger.” Inside, my heart sunk a bit. “Great,” I thought, “more to read. And from an author whose work I don’t really know.” But I dutifully wrote, “More Heidegger,” in the margin of a page, and after the meeting, I checked out a copy of The Question Concerning Technology.
“I read Heidegger and tried to understand how his views on technology fit into his and my larger projects. It wasn’t especially easy going. And perhaps in the third day of thinking about Heidegger, I had an epiphany that was perhaps closer to dasein than technology. As I came to see it, her comments were not so much about the dissertation that I was writing so much as they were about what the dissertation would be if she were writing it. Her comments were built on her wide knowledge of continental philosophy and the fact that she really could have deployed Heidegger effectively in the argument. But it wasn’t reflective of the reality of what I was going to be able to produce at this point in my career. I dropped Heidegger from all but a half sentence in my introduction, and my reader never brought it up again.
“The key lesson that I learned in this interaction is that mentoring is a fantasy, understood in the psychoanalytic sense. When mentors interact with us, their advice frequently comes from a place that reflects what they would do in our situations more than what we can do, given our own specific reality. My adviser had a fantasy version of my dissertation in her head that I simply couldn’t produce. (Her version might very well have been the better version, but that didn’t have much to do with what I was going to write.)
“Importantly, this moment helped me realize not just my mentors’ unrealistic expectations of me but also to see that I often had fantastical expectations of my advisers. The frustration that I felt when I turned in a draft of my first chapter and didn’t have comments within two weeks had everything to do with how I thought the relationship would and should work. Recognizing my expectations as the fantasies they in fact were allowed me to let go of some of what had been hardest for me in the process of writing my dissertation.”
With this insight, we started seeing how little impact the many forms of mentoring were having on the progress of the nine start-up companies. 9Mile Labs had an innovative plan for incorporating mentors into their B2B accelerator:
“We’ve picked the best entrepreneurial, technical, and business minds from the Pacific Northwest and beyond to mentor and coach the 9Mile startups in the program. These mentors aren’t just brilliant, they’re also driven to help propel our startups to the next level.”
The 9Mile Labs partners went further by having several matching processes to link the right mentors with the appropriate start-ups. They even provided financial compensation for the matched mentors. However, the hidden assumption was that the mentors knew how to work with the entrepreneurs and vice versa.
The mentors made recommendations based on how they would do the work, but the entrepreneurs neither knew how to receive the information or what help to ask for in a timely fashion. The entrepreneurs were doing the same thing that I did in my serial entrepreneurial past – do you have some money to invest in my company then I will appear to pay attention to you? If you don’t have money to invest in my company, I will mostly be polite and then completely ignore your advice.
Brant Cooper, author of The Lean Entrepreneur, echoes these observations in “Mentoring Start-ups is Hard: Five Ways to be a Better Mentor.” His five keys to successful mentoring are:
- Teach, Don’t Tell
- Focus Your Advice
- Challenge Assumptions
- Beware of Being a Domain Expert
- Teach Entrepreneurs how to be Good Mentees
“The tasks will help you develop new patterns of thinking and seeing. To that end, you will also find within the narrative a few related practices. The practices are useful in preparing your mind for the flip to a new way of thinking. This process is like riding a bike: you can read about it and think that you know or you can get on, start pedaling and learn to ride. The practices and tasks will only help if you do them; they can’t help if you don’t engage with them. To reiterate: perspective shifts are not an intellectual exercise; they are dynamic processes. Shifts in perspective are intuitive, experiential engagements made conscious through action and reflection. Effectual entrepreneurs are like artists: engaged in dynamic, fluid creative practices. Get on the bike and ride. Challenge what you think you know. Open your eyes to possibilities. Allow yourself to make meaning of your experiences after you have them. It is, after all, how your brain works so you might as well begin by dropping the illusion that you know something before you encounter it – it’s an important skill for an entrepreneur.”
Experience first; make meaning second.
Yet, there is a foundational issue with mentoring – what is the evidence of credibility of the mentor such that the entrepreneur is interested in listening in the first place. Further, the evidence must be very directly and immediately relevant to the entrepreneur. I didn’t understand this until spending time with Paul D’Antilio (currently COO of GroupTie) when he became CEO of Future Point Systems. He invited me in to share my thoughts on the visual analytics marketplace and what he should do as a CEO.
After fidgeting for an hour while I pontificated on the market and what he should do (violating my mantras above), Paul blurted out “Why should I listen to you? What have you done? How do I know that Attenex was really successful?” I was stunned. I thought I’d just been brilliant and enormously helpful and came face to face with Paul “hearing” nothing because of my lack of credibility. I was stuck because I knew that I couldn’t share that the announcement of Attenex being sold to FTI Consulting for $91M was still a month away.
We chatted for a while longer and then I left. I made a note to send Paul the Attenex acquisition announcement. When the deal closed, I sent Paul the press release and he called immediately and said “Now I’m ready to listen.”
Mentoring and being a mentee is indeed hard work. Yet, when the magic happens, there is nothing more rewarding for a mentor than seeing a mentee push forward. For a mentee, there is the gift of knowing that they have a trusted colleague they can turn to whenever needed.
“Communication is the results that you get, not the words that you speak.”
For a humorous look at the wonderful world of innovation and new ventures, checkout Fl!p and the gang at Fl!p Comics.