Mentors and teachers. The CEO guide to the role of mentors in the start-up world

Entrepreneurial success is not a stroke of luck. Even with the best idea, the road to success is often challenging, and history shows that role models, mentors and teachers play a vital role in the success of start-ups. For instance, after the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg paid homage to him as a mentor and friend who showed him the potential to transform the world.

If you’re starting on the road to start-up success, what should you look for in a mentor, and where can you find one? We’ve spoken to over 30 tech entrepreneurs as part of our Unicorn CEO interview series for our Without Borders podcast, and many said that mentors and teachers played a pivotal role in their success. We’ve collected these stories and the lessons they learned in our new Tech CEO Communications Playbook: Winning strategies for success, a free resource for any CEO, tech marketer, or entrepreneur to access 

Here are some of the highlights from the fourth and final guide in this series, entitled Mentors and teachers.  

The benefits of mentorship 

There are tangible economic benefits to having a mentor. A study by the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative found that 70% of small business owners who receive mentorship successfully survive the first five years — twice the rate of owners who don’t receive any mentoring. But there also intangible benefits that have an effect on a personal or emotional level. 

Jeff Lunsford, CEO of Tealium, mentioned he had three mentors who taught him important lessons throughout his career. He said: “We face various critical moments, both in the Navy and in business. Observing how my mentors reacted and led our teams through those periods of adversity so that we came out stronger in the end has always set a great example for me… Those three leaders have taught me that business success is never a straight line. There are always ups and downs.” 

Develop your skills 

Working with a mentor can help you with particular areas of personal development. This was something Erez Galonska, CEO and Co-Founder of Infarm, found invaluable in developing his confidence and presentation skills. He reflected that some of the things people associate with being an entrepreneur – such as being confident and persuasive – took some practice for him. “It’s not something that comes to me naturally, so it took me some time to get used to it and to adapt and to learn how to present in front of an audience.”   

Mentors really helped him with this. He says: “I received valuable feedback from many people, had mentors, and gradually refined my stage presence over time. With experience, you start to enjoy it.”   

Learn from the best 

Sometimes the best mentors are found exactly where you expect them to be – in successful and vibrant personalities who radiate what many founders and CEOs aspire for in their own careers. 

Zeb Evans, CEO and Founder of productivity platform ClickUp, once met Virgin co-founder Richard Branson. His advice to Zeb was that it’s important to find out how not to work.  

Evans felt that, as a founder and entrepreneur, he always had to try to do everything. When he had the chance to speak to Branson, he asked how you know when it’s right to focus your time on other things. Branson’s response was: “Whatever you are doing, always figure out how not to do it.” 

“It doesn’t have to be all about business,” reflects Evans. “You don’t need to dedicate 100% of your time to work. You need to have some balance. Even as you scale, there are lots of things that you could let go of right now. Richard Branson is a great example of somebody who did that well.”   

To sum up, the key pieces of strategic advice we learned from the leaders we spoke to were: 

  • Proactively seek out potential mentors throughout your career whilst making connections and networking.  
  • Work with a mentor who can help you become aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Ask for feedback and implement their advice. 
  • Let go of the areas you’re not so good at and hire people who are better than you to do the work in those areas.  

For more insights and advice on other crucial business objectives, check out the Tech CEO Communications Playbook webpage and download your guide today. Other topics include managing internal communications in a remote setting, how to communicate your failures and encourage a healthy error-culture, and what advice leaders would give to their younger selves.  

And if you are interested in listening to interviews with these and other unicorn start-up leaders such as Poppy Gustafssonof Darktrace, Vijay Tella of Workato, Job van der Voort of Remote, or Greg Jackson of Octopus Energy, you can do so on our Without Borders podcast.