There are a variety of ways to ensure the feedback you provide to your entrepreneurs is as effective as possible. This article will provide insights for both aspiring business mentors seeking to hone their evaluative abilities and veteran advisers who could use a refresher course in providing effective feedback.
Foundations of a Strong Mentoring Relationship
The first step to forming any beneficial mentoring relationship is establishing an air of trust and mutual understanding between you and your entrepreneur. You’ll want to get to know a little bit more about them before diving directly into the bulk of the work itself. It will benefit you greatly to learn about your entrepreneur's business and challenges, but you’ll generally want to guide your questions, and the conversation as a whole, to their deeper goals and motivations. Try to better understand the deeper motivations behind their stated objectives. Why do they need a mentor? What do they hope to accomplish through your work together? What does success look like? These questions will help you to get a better idea of where they are coming from and where you can add the most value. By the end of your first meeting together, you and your entrepreneur should both have settled upon a mutually understood set of goals. If it is not clear what you hope to accomplish together, it will become easier to become distracted by day-to-day life, and forget why you are working together. The attainment of previously-set goals will become a milepost to reflect on past accomplishments and keep moving forward towards new goals.
Giving advice is more of an art than a science. That said, a great deal of research has been devoted to this topic. Our favorite summary of this research is the Harvard Business Review's "The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice". No matter how skilled we are in our area of expertise, we can always cultivate and hone our ability to communicate with power. The only way to become a master is through practice. You will find that each relationship has it's own unique flow, so don't try to force each connection to follow the same structure. Do, however, consciously practice these skills, and you will become more effective at helping others to grow.
Open with Real Dialogue
One common trap mentors fall into is an endless e-mail exchange where neither party feels fully heard. As anachronistic as it may seem, a live phone conversation (or even better—a live conversation in person) is still the best way to make sure that you understand your entrepreneur and are understood. Avoid giving detailed feedback in a one-way or non-interactive format like e-mail before you understand them. Schedule a time to meet so you can have a more dynamic two-way exchange. This way you can follow-up immediately on points where you are unclear and also get a feel for the personality of your entrepreneur.
Feedback is an ongoing process, not something that is simply scheduled once a week. Don't wait too long between exchanges—your entrepreneur could end up wasting time and effort without regular check-ins to ensure they are still working in the right direction. They will have the best chance at correcting and improving upon their behaviors if feedback is given immediately following a completed task, when the work is still freshest in their mind.
Acknowledging exactly what your entrepreneur has done well can help to keep their morale level high, but more importantly, they will be able to repeat effective behaviors and apply them to new contexts.
Be transparent about the reasoning behind your feedback. Many times, the thought process you are applying to your recommendations are even more valuable than the recommendations themselves, as the entrepreneur will be able to repeat this process on their own when they are confronted by novel challenges. Also, it may not always be obvious why you think a certain course of action is a good idea, and exploring this space leads to a richer shared understanding that is more likely to result in action.
Illustrative examples from your personal experience demonstrate that you've been in their shoes before, and that everything turned out all right in the end. It also helps the entrepreneur to visualize how they might approach their own problem, taking bits and pieces from your own approach, but ultimately choosing their own path.
Ask for Feedback in Return
How will you know whether your advice is helpful to your entrepreneur? Ask them! Sometimes you may feel that your comments are falling on deaf ears—don't wait for this to happen. Ask early and often whether your contributions are making a difference, and how you can improve. This will make your time with your entrepreneur more relevant and productive, and will nurture your connection into the future.
The Subtleties and Etiquette of Mentoring
The way you approach giving feedback can be nearly as important as the feedback itself. People tend to hear only what they are ready to hear, so if feedback is delivered at the wrong time or in the wrong tone, it will not influence behavior. While it can be immediately gratifying to dispense knowledge, you ultimately help others more by playing the long game, and developing their ability to solve their own problems. Ask questions that can serve to further illuminate the issue and/or guide the entrepreneur toward his or her own revelations. If you can help them to reach their own conclusions, the final lesson will have more sticking power than if you had simply done the thinking for them.
Stay humble. Your critique shouldn't be delivered as pure truth or fact. Your knowledge is backed by experience, but you may not be aware of important context that is informing their decisions. Don't take offense if they do not implement your advice completely or immediately. Their decisions are based on a complex set of factors, your advice only being one of them, and their decision-making process will likely be organic and nuanced. Accept that your advice is one thread in a diverse tapestry of knowledge that your entrepreneur is using to advance their goals. Above all else, you should approach your mentoring relationship as an ongoing process. Feedback isn’t just a regularly scheduled meeting. Whether you are providing advice in a shorter format by e-mail, or having regular in-depth conversations, you should always be seeking any additional ways to encourage further development and improvement in your entrepreneur. Find teachable moments as the entrepreneur arrives at dilemmas in their business. By continually working together through pressing challenges, your sense of mutual trust and respect will grow.