Want the Best Mentor? One Thing to Know

The best mentors have no answers. They have only questions, frameworks, multiple open choices, a light to shine and an open mind. They are listeners first and foremost and they bring encouragement, compassion and a soft voice.

Why are questions so important?

I don’t know, but you will. That is the point. The right questions will help you get curious about what is right for you based on your own internal reasoning. Answers merely tempt you to take the road already traveled and that may be wrong or inappropriate for you. Whereas with thought about the question, you can develop your own logic and rationale that will almost certainly be critical to execution. And yes, it’s fine to answer a question with a question. Curious minds can often puzzle together to develop a combinatorial solution more powerful than a single answer.

For example, I’m a big believer in focus. In fact, it’s my No. 1 Startup Secret. But when I was recently running a small session at Seedcamp in Europe, Carlos Eduado Espinal, who is a great mentor, encouraged his teams to think as a group, making it easy for me to hold back on direct answers with respect to my own opinion about market segmentation and focus. As a result, we saw an entire team of great entrepreneurs help each other out discussing the challenges of what I call a minimum viable segment (MVS) that many of them faced. The end result was far more powerful than any of us could have imagined due to the combined questioning and reasoning of the group. Good mentors like Carlos separate opinion from fact, encourage debate and remain open-minded to learning for themselves.

What is a framework and why might you care?

As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re headed, any road will get you there. Frameworks are a basis to discuss where you’re headed and develop a basis to consider what progress you’re making on your journey toward your goals and objectives. If well laid out together with a mentor, they can become your basis for self-assessment, which I consider to be the second most important measure of success. The first measure for me is whether you’re enjoying the journey itself. And if you’ve found a great mentor who really fits your needs, he or she will be rewarded just as much by seeing that enlightenment in you.

The significance of multiple open choices

Sometimes I find that people really want actionable advice and need choices to compare and contrast options. It’s fun to brainstorm or develop those together, but in all cases they should be open choices. Sometimes the best choice is not even up for consideration and the key is to keep an open mind to what may be possible that has heretofore never been considered or done before. That is the basis of innovation and entrepreneurship, and it’s critical your mentor keep that option open. Because, as I discuss in this LinkedIn article, often the breakthroughs come from people with no experience, precisely because they don’t know what’s probable and think only of what’s possible.

Ultimately, whatever choice you make needs to be your choice for your personal reasons, so that you can pursue it with your conviction first and foremost.

What if you really get stuck and don’t know what to do?

Then you have your answer. Take time to understand what is holding you back and use your mentor to help you tease out what might be your natural resistance to change. Understanding that will be key to empowering you when you do take action to not revert to that same point of resistance in the future.

The problem with answers is they presume you. That’s why mentors need to be good listeners first so they can really get to know you. But even then, you are unique and so what’s important is to help you find your own unique path. That’s where the light comes in. It’s helpful if mentors can shine a light on new considerations. But it’s up to you to decide what to do with those considerations.

I’m lucky enough to mentor at places like TechStars, alongside great people likeKatie Rae and Reed Sturtevant who do a great job with their mentorship. What impresses me most is the balance of the direct truth they share, with the nurturing between them. In my experience, good mentors offer encouragement and compassion. Because things are very rarely ever as bad as they seem or as good as they seem and the only thing that matters is what you make of each situation. There is no failure in my book. Only learning.

I encourage you to consider mentors for any and all aspects of your life that seem right to you. But ask them this question first: Why are you looking to mentor me and what is mentoring to you? Check for authenticity and to see if it resonates for you, and don’t settle for any mentor until it does.

Wait, did I just answer a question?

*This post was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.