Last year, I spent some time meeting entrepreneurs in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It is always energizing to speak with founders during their entrepreneurial journey. However, I was surprised to learn that founders struggle to maintain relationships with mentors. Whether the mentor is a founder, a leader or a peer, I believe that one tactic is to flip the table and ask what you can do for them.
A few years ago, I was assigned to a mentor team at the Junto Institute. If you aren’t familiar with them, the organization supports companies and founders that grow together. They do this by connecting entrepreneurs with a team of mentors and offering coursework for founders who don’t have an MBA. It’s really an amazing organization that I wish existed when we were scaling cleverbridge.
As part of this Junto mentor team, I met a young, but self-aware founder who was seeking help. We met with the mentor team and his leadership team on a monthly basis to share our experiences in real world situations he faced. In fact, I really enjoyed hearing the experiences from the other mentors around the table to gain insights into what I was doing during the day.
This founder made greats strides as finding his voice and confidence in decision making. After the nine month program completed, I congratulated him and went back to my normal daily business. About a year passed and I hadn’t heard from him during this time. I didn’t view this negatively since I wasn’t really plugged in to his industry to actively help anyway.
Then one day I received an email from him where he apologized for not being in regular contact since the end of the program. He asked me to lunch and to catch up, which of course I accepted. When we met, he gave me a business update that included some meaningful business changes. I could tell that the mentor group had impacted him and thought that he would ask me for some specific introduction from within my network.
It was then that he blew me away by asking, “What can I do for you?” I was a bit stunned. I never expected that question, rarely is it asked to me and I had not thought about it. What could he possibly do for me? I think that I immediately said that there was nothing that I needed and was going to return to mentoring him.
After a few seconds, I started a stream of consciousness answer about looking for someone with technical out-sourcing knowledge for a project we were considering, female founders that I could support in their entrepreneurial positions and like-minded investors in the Chicago community. I didn’t expect anything to come of this rambling, but he quickly rattled off contacts in all three categories and said that he would make the email introductions when returning to his desk. I left that lunch feeling ok, but not expecting anything great. Little did I know that all of his introductions were spot on.
I learned a valuable lesson that day that I should be ready in case someone asks to help me. Likewise, it’s a surprising move by the mentee to ask the mentor if there’s anything that they can do to help. It also is a great way to build a stronger relationship with the mentor for when you really do need some help. When you don’t know how to maintain the relationship, flip the table.