Why Mentoring Is Key To Innovation

by Ravi Narayan, Advisor, Zinnov; Chaitra Ramalingegowda, Marketing, Zinnov

corporate mentorship programs

A blockchain start-up was onboarded as part of a financial services company’s innovation journey. During the course of the engagement, the General Manager of a Business Unit was brought in to mentor the start-up. The GM, being part of the old guard at the organization, was a leader with years of experience and expertise in their domain. However, the GM had very superficial knowledge of blockchain or its potential impact on the financial services sector. On the other hand, the start-up approached this engagement with naiveté, and may be even a touch of hubris. The way this mentoring exercise was structured wasn’t well thought-through. Putting a mentor who isn’t knowledgeable about the basic framework and technology on which the start-up was built, and a skeptical start-up on the other end of this exercise, was bound to fail.

The inability to structure the mentoring engagement well and identify the right mentor caused this corporate – start-up engagement to fail.

The Mentoring Paradigm

Is mentoring a critical aspect of a corporate – start-up innovation partnership?

Mentorship augments innovation thinking by bringing in a fresh perspective through the lens of experiences. As innovation thinking is what will give us enduring, market-defining companies of the future, the emphasis on mentoring is all the more important for corporates and start-ups alike. However, its potential hasn’t been explored fully. Mentoring, done right, has the ability to take good to great, benefiting both corporates and start-ups in the long run.

Conventional wisdom dictates that a mentor is almost always a person who is more experienced than the mentee. The structure of such a mentor-mentee relationship is defined by two aspects – length of experience and depth of experience. Interestingly, experience is not directly correlated to its length, but is a function of a multitude of things that are compressed into durations that are shorter, packed with great learning and the associated wisdom. An asymmetry in knowledge, wisdom, and information is what lays the foundation for the relationship between a mentor and a mentee.

However, with new-age start-ups coming to the fore and many entrepreneurs embracing the ‘fail fast, learn fast’ lean methodology, their experience in a domain is not necessarily tied to the number of years spent in that domain. Further, adding newer digital technologies to the mix changes the way mentoring is viewed from a time and experience lens. This is especially true for the corporate – start-up mentoring paradigm. In this era of innovation, where it’s either innovate or stagnate, it is critical for entrepreneurs and corporates alike to have the ability to imbibe knowledge and learning seamlessly from different people and sources, and most importantly, from each other.

Mentoring is a Two-way Street

Most corporates and start-ups don’t realize that mentoring is a two-way street. As much as the start-up is gaining through the corporate’s mentorship, the corporate gains as well. Additionally, for a two-way mentoring relationship to be successful, identification of the right mentor – internal or external – is crucial.

corporate mentorship programs

Similarly, the start-up has a lot to gain by engaging with a corporate. Although start-ups are the frontrunners that push boundaries on technology, business, market opportunities, etc., because they are nimble, unencumbered, and are adept at adapting to change to always keep moving forward, they lack experience in certain crucial aspects.

corporate mentorship programs

The corporate brings its understanding of scale, market, and clear articulation of the value proposition to the table, which the start-up might lack. On the other hand, a start-up brings to the table its out of the box thinking and risk-embracing perspective, which the corporate might not even have thought of. Thus, mentoring is a symbiotic relationship that benefits both corporates and start-ups alike.

Mentoring or Collaboration? The Way Forward

The basic ingredients of a mentoring relationship are trust and chemistry, the lack of which signifies a failed relationship. While trust helps create a conduit for open, fruitful conversations between the mentor and the start-up, chemistry ensures that there is a platform for bouncing off of ideas, thoughts, and ease of leveraging each other’s capabilities to the maximum.

Mentoring, as it exists today, is more of a collaboration, an equal partnership, rather than a skewed relationship. It is an approach to finding a different way to solving the same problem, by collaborating with each other and anchoring on each other’s experiences and expertise. At the end of the day, it’s about leapfrogging into the next level at an accelerated pace by virtue of this partnership.

corporate mentorship programs

To put things into perspective, consider the above graph.

Corporates and start-ups will need to evolve to collaborate with each other in the Quadrant of Trust. Taking the Path of Collaboration is the most effective way to reach the trust quadrant. However, depending on where corporates and start-ups are in their evolution, multiple paths are possible to reach the Quadrant of Trust.

Corporates, in the initial days of interest over innovation, had a rigid mindset, possibly even approaching the whole innovation agenda with a healthy dose of skepticism and trepidation. However, as they move from one stage of evolution to the next on the open innovation maturity curve, and keep an open mind towards working with start-ups, they manage to push aside their skepticism long enough to realize the potential of such a collaboration. This is the stage where corporates realize that they may not internally possess the capabilities to disrupt the status quo. As they progressively become more and more open to newer ideas, relooking at the problems, they also take the opportunity to recast the solution and how to approach it. This is the evolution that corporates have undergone over the years.

On the other hand, start-ups have undergone an evolution of their own. From being creative, out of the box thinking entrepreneurs with a touch of naïveté and unrealistic expectations, start-ups, over time, have evolved to become more grounded, to look at markets in a realistic way. Of course, it’s the daring, devil may care attitude and a hunger to achieve audacious goals that makes the best disruptors in the industry. But being grounded with realistic expectations sets the ground for successful collaboration with corporates.

Mentoring as an Organization Culture

In this age of innovation, it’s a question of when and not if a corporate will engage with a start-up. Given this, it behooves a corporate to instill mentoring as an organization culture, especially from the top-down. Some of the steps may include –

  • Corporates should initiate mentoring workshops/training sessions to reinforce the importance of mentoring.
  • It is also necessary to train corporate leaders in the art of fostering a relationship built on mutual trust and respect, create an environment where start-ups can have fruitful discussions with their mentors.
  • Potential mentors need to be methodical and systematic in chalking out their intended goals, so the discussions can be driven to achieve those outcomes.
  • Both mentor and mentee may realize that there isn’t enough data/information to make certain decisions at that point in time, which is a crucial step in such an engagement.
  • Corporate leaders need to be trained to be open-minded when interacting with start-ups.

Mentorship is the catalyst that can help corporate – start-up engagements scale greater heights. It’s an undeniable fact that corporates have what start-ups lack, and vice versa. Both parties need to evolve and be biased towards speed rather than process, with mentoring bringing in the focus that catalyzes this process.

corporate mentorship programs

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