Tips & Guidance


Managing Mentoring Relationships

The NCME gathered to explore how to effectively manage relationships between entrepreneurs and their mentors. We were fortunate to have two superb serial entrepreneur panellists: Heather Niven, Business and Innovation Consultant and Mary McKenna, Angel Investor and Board Member (various). The theme of the meeting was managing mentoring relationships and the discussions centred around their experiences, what entrepreneurship educators could learn from and what they could apply to their own coaching or mentoring programmes. There were three key practices that emerged:


1) Mentors want to build their network – provide avenues for them to do so


Both Mary and Heather talked about the excitement of meeting other mentors and engaging within the wider ecosystems of institutions. Not only do they want to meet and help the world’s newest entrepreneurs, they want to broaden their own networks, which is beneficial both for their mentoring and other endeavours they’re involved in.

Mary neatly summed this up, “You are asking people to give up a lot of time, getting to meet other mentors is an important value-add, a draw for getting other mentors involved.” Heather agreed “I love the networking and how it leads to other opportunities.”

And networks beget networks. Mary was invited to a European entrepreneurial network based not only on her career history, but on her being a mentor at the University of Oxford, a highly respected network. To help mentors build their network, invite them to events or make personal introductions and connections that could provide them with further connections and value-add.


2) Mentors want to share values with your service – make it clear what you believe in


A key source of nurturing relationships with mentors is ensuring good practices and shared values are in place. As a venture mentoring service, that means preparing both mentors and ventures for the relationship.

As Mary put it, “There can be a lot of time wasting that goes on – turn up for a meeting and they haven’t shown up, or poor chemistry. If mentees do not respect your time…. well, if it happened more than a couple of times you would question your involvement with that team.”

Heather agreed, “You need to manage expectations, have a modus operandi in place. Mentors and ventures need to agree how they will engage with each other.”

And this also extends to mentors, especially when it is a multi-mentor team engaging with a venture. Mary shared that in her experience, “Misunderstandings tend to be when mentors have to be working together and have different perspectives on how best to do this, even to when it should be in person or virtual. Virtual/online is a big help and the last year has normalised this. Whilst it does miss the chemistry of in person meetings at least it makes for more efficient use of time.”

Of course, this is where the mentoring service can play a big part, in providing standard processes that facilitate all the above, ensuring good communications and clearly framing the value being provided.


3) Mentors want a smooth-running service – be organised!


Strong communication and having concrete agreements in place is a strong theme. Mentors are busy, successful people and they achieved their success in no small part to intense focus and making the most of every minute.

Heather commented, “At the least, a shared terms-of-engagement, a shared set of understandings, is needed.” Mary agreed, ‘Have the conversation at the outset.”

When discussing how they ensure value-add in their mentoring, both talked about structure.

Heather ensured that her startups came to her with an agenda and would start each new mentoring assignment by “going around a business model canvas to find out where they are strong, where they are a bit ropy and identify the areas of weakness and how to solve that (is it learning, bringing in skills etc.).” Heather also mentioned “Businesses that are longer in the tooth, who are often doing something significant like changing direction or scaling, mentoring tends to be more about responding on the hoof” rather than going through the basics.

Mary’s approach was very similar to Heather’s and is mostly focussed on startup businesses. She commented, “Have a plan for meetings and what to do between meetings.” the reason for which Heather neatly summed up, “Having homework keeps everyone invested and minimises time wasting.” One of her top questions to identify whether teams are focussing on the right things is “What is keeping you awake at night?” which she said was great for making sure she has pulled out anything that an entrepreneur might have been concerned about revealing.

Another tactic that both mentors use is to identify others in their network who can help with the parts that they are not comfortable with, or don’t know enough about, which is another area that the mentoring service can be ready to help with.

These are just some of the ways we can continue to develop strong mentoring services. We hope you find these insights useful and look forward to continuing discussions at the next NCME meeting. Apply here to join us!

Authors: Victoria Nicholl and Professor Harveen Chugh. Thanks to Ben Mumby-Croft and Jennifer Mills for edits. An earlier version of this article was published on LinkedIn in March 2021.