Thursday, January 20, 2011


There is a lot of interest in mentoring these days, both from people who want to be mentored and those who want to give back and be mentors. Mentoring isn’t exactly new, though. UNSW’s Chancellor, David Gonski, was mentored by the late Kim Santow in the 70’s. We should be able to learn lessons about mentoring from our past before reinventing the wheel.

Before looking at different types of mentors, let’s take a step back and compare mentoring to coaching. If you think of a coach, you probably get the image of a sports coach, running up and down the side-lines, yelling very specific instructions to the players about where they should be and what they should do, or who they should keep an eye on. Mentoring, on the other hand, isn’t so much about providing specific instructions, as it is about asking the right questions to get the mentee to draw their on conclusion about what course of action is best. For years I volunteered with the NVBC, and co-mentored start-ups in the competition alongside Peter Parrish. Back then there was not much structure to the program other than us asking the entrepreneurs a million questions and getting them to think about what they would say to judges in the competition who might ask the same questions. These days, the NVBC mentoring program is complemented by a very structured mentoring program, operated by the regional innovation council (NVBC's title sponsor), for which Peter is now training to be a “lead mentor”.

Even though some people prefer being part of a structured program and being assigned mentors, the reality is that you (yes, you) can go out and find your own mentors, too. Having one mentor doesn’t mean you can’t have another. You don’t even need to let the person know you consider them your mentor. David Lerner’s blog has an interesting post describing varying degrees of formality to mentorship, from free and informal, through to very structured for-fee programs. Another excellent source for what it means to have or be a mentor is Nature’s guide for mentors, which even includes a self-assessment tool, to see how good a mentor you are.

This past semester, I created the opportunity for 15 teams of 5-6 students to be mentored for their business idea as part of a course I teach, STRE2010. Part way through the course, students created short youtube clips of their business pitches (e.g. Detect to Protect, much like the recent TED talk on concussions), which I then sent out to about 30 entrepreneurs who had previously expressed interest in mentoring. Within a few short days (over a weekend!), mentors had signed up to all of the teams. Teams were mentored for another 5-6 weeks through to the final pitch, done in front of a live panel of judges, consisting of entrepreneurs and investors. The feedback from the mentoring program was great. Both students and mentors really enjoyed the opportunity and engagement.

This term, we are tweaking the mentoring program and probably increasing it, due to the fantastic uptake of the revised Diploma in Innovation Management and increased enrolment in my course. Rather than pairing teams up with mentors, we will get teams to find their own mentors. This will help students learn to step outside their comfort zone, network, and pitch their business ideas to real people outside the classroom. We will of course have our own list of people we miiiiiiiight be able to put them in touch with if they really are stuggling to find mentors on their own (please let us know if you want to be added to our list). And, there are also related organizations like TiE Sydney, through which students may find mentors. (SME mentors may be found through Enterprise Connect's ELM program)

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to read our recent B-HERT article on teaching innovation and entrepreneurship in high-school, subscribe to our news and events, and follow us on Twitter.

Dr. Martin Bliemel
Director, Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship
School of Strategy & Entrepreneurship
Australian School of Business, UNSW