For social entrepreneurs in all phases of leadership, mentorship is important. Mentorship is what got many of us through the hard days, and it's the dialogue that enabled us to talk through ideas, mistakes, and opportunities for growth.
Having a mentor is an essential part of the leadership equation, so when someone new in their career or entrepreneurial journey reaches out to you for mentorship, it's an opportunity to give back what was given to you.
But as it is in all aspects of leadership, mentoring others is something you need to learn. You don't cultivate great mentorship skills overnight. Often, it's a process learned from being mentored by others and by getting it wrong before you get it right.
As a social entrepreneur, my mentors have been critical to any success I've ever achieved. Most importantly, they've been critical to helping me navigate failure, uncertainty and the days when you feel ready to close-shop and quit.
Mentoring another social entrepreneur in need of your advice and support takes time and practice. Here are a few tips to get off on the right track as you help others trying to make a difference.
1. Don't make quick assumptions.
You may have experience in the same industry or may have experience in leading a nonprofit or social enterprise, but it's likely there are differences between your mentee's venture – whether geography, maturity, vision or industry. Whether you think your mentee is getting it wrong or is moving too quickly, let them explain, hear their rationale and be slow to make assumptions. Making assumptions or offering unsolicited feedback before solidifying trust with your mentee can be detrimental to the relationship.
2. Be gracious.
The mentorship dialogue often has elements that aren't just tough to discuss – they're downright embarrassing. Failing as a new entrepreneur is gut-wrenching, let alone admitting your failures to someone you respect. Understand that you were once in the same shoes. As your mentee talks through failures or leadership mistakes, be gracious with them. Use examples from your own story of entrepreneurship, and reassure them that most successful entrepreneurs have had an embarrassing failure – or five.
3. Ask questions.
As your mentees learn to communicate their idea, business plan or strategies effectively, help them by asking informed questions. Question them when you're unsure, and ask them to clarify what isn't adding up or making sense. Instead of launching into a narrative about something they've said, help them learn to explain themselves fully – and make sure you have the full story before you offer feedback. While they will need to grow in their communication skills over time, asking questions and helping guide your mentees in their communication delivery will not only ensure you respond to their ideas with the right feedback, but it will help them hone in on their communication skills – an important skill for any social entrepreneur.
4. Inspire them.
Being kind to your mentees and asking them questions doesn't mean you can't challenge them. But as any good leader does, challenge them through inspiring them first. There isn't a formula for inspiration, but all inspirational leaders represent strong leadership qualities, good character and a genuine concern for others. Be the best leader you can be – even outside of your mentorship dialogue –and you will inspire your mentees simply by the way you live and lead. If your focus is on inspiring them – pulling the best qualities out of them, helping them hone in on vision for their future and their company's future – opportunities to challenge them will be inevitable.
Remember: the mentorship dialogue starts and ends with learning, transparency and open communication. Treat your mentorship relationship with respect, and know the honor it is to invest in the lives and leadership of up and coming entrepreneurs.