Mentoring Talent Transformation

Why a people investment approach is necessary for start-ups to succeed at scale

Carl Jung once said: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

This inner necessity has another name – “the creative urge”, which to varying degrees exists in all of us. This means, all of us actually can learn to be creative. But if on our own, we cannot tap onto that source of creativity, who can help us?

We also know that creativity does not equate to innovation. The reality is that as of today, the best leverage that the business world has benefited from innovation activities, in general, is from execution efforts, dominantly in commercialisation. Perhaps one day we can be a bit more creative in how we deliver, commercialise and scale ideas. I am sure that day will be equally exciting, but that is a different story.

Last night, sharing a panel with the pragmatic Marcus Powe at an event organised by the caring folks of Entrepreneurs&Co, we discussed technology and disruption, and a few things entrepreneurial in between. Thank you everyone for making the efforts to come and listen, and help one another; after-hour events always take some efforts to attend.

It was clear from the discussions that even in the start-up community, it is the execution skills (and capabilities) that are lacking, not creativity. Therefore it seems obvious that the role incubators+accelerators can play in enabling start-up success will continue to be crucial. Not only incubators+accelerators, also the larger eco-system supporting (and encouraging) start-ups, ranging from policy making, taxation and grants, coaching and mentoring, infrastructure, labour market, to investment. As we see the focus now in Australia shifting to innovation, let us not forget that these eco-systems and incubators+accelerators all rely on a common pool of mentors and coaches to be effective. Hence, it is critical to grow this pool, otherwise we will quickly run into bandwidth problems (we already have, in certain operations).

Mentors and coaches play different roles. One person can wear both hats but one needs to be aware of the differences. I tend to focus on one major difference: mentoring helps the individual improve holistically without an agenda to start with, whilst coaching aims to uplift a particular skill set or individual behaviour. If we see the differences through this lens, then it is very clear that growing the pool of coaches is more straightforward than growing the pool of mentors.

As coaching is targeted, it is more straightforward to time box coaching activities. This arrangement works well in a commercial sense, because competent coaches are generally time poor, and investors always push for returns.

As mentoring is holistic, a good mentor should ideally be highly experienced, and compassionate, not only in professional domains, but also in life. With the focus of mentoring being on growing the individual, the commercial context (time, resources and money) is often discounted. How do you, dear Mentor, plan for someone to change within the next six months? People will change when they are burning with a desire to change. Mentors could try to accelerate the arrival of that moment through deliberately planned situations, but it is almost impossible to predict when it will come. So the reality is that mentoring requires a lot of time and patience, yet providing little or no commercial returns.

Most companies, when referring to mentor-to-startup or counsellor-to-employee ratios, are actually talking about coach-to-startup, or coach-to-employee ratios, respectively.

Loosely speaking, coaches help people execute, whilst mentors help spark and nurture the creativity and the desire to change in people. Also, very loosely speaking, coaches often focus on the head, whilst mentors focus on the heart and guts. Both have critical roles to play. Even the most brilliant people probably will fail several times – in business and in life, but the right people will succeed eventually. If coaches give up on someone after one or two failures (due to commercial constraints), it is the mentor who will persist with the right people. We desperately need more mentors to enable the commercial success of start-ups at scale. This, before long, should also apply to established enterprises, as the pace of digital disruption keeps on accelerating.

Every Plato needs a Socrates. Every Warren Buffett needs a Benjamin Graham. Every Marc Benioff needs a Steve Jobs.

Today, mentoring (seen strictly through the above lens) does not scale well due to the above constraints. Every day, each of us probably sees so much emerging talent who needs nurturing. Perhaps the timing is right for a long-term people investment approach that is also commercially viable and can complement mentoring. Without such an approach, we can only rely on accomplished, and extremely busy, folks who say: “I Care”.