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How to Tell a Mentor He's Wrong

He's got the experience and the know-how, but his advice is off the mark. How to handle a mentor you don't agree with.

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Rule No. 1 about start-up mentors: They are not omniscient. In fact, sometimes they’re just plain wrong. 

It’s something that’s not always easy to see as an entrepreneur. You go to mentors for advice because they have see some of the things that you’re going to see and they’ve made some of the mistakes that you’re hoping not to make. 

Still, they’re not running your business—you are. There’s no law that says you have to do what your mentor suggests. And the sooner you learn how to say “no” confidently, the easier it will be to manage these key relationships. 

At TechStars, I have the privilege of working with hundreds of the best and brightest start-up mentors on the planet. We coach our mentors to take a Socratic approach and to provide data rather than decisions. But not all mentors (even some of ours) behave this way all the time. Sometimes a mentor firmly believes that she is right, and presents as fact what is actually strongly held belief.  

The best mentors present their opinions simply as data and not as direction. They’re hoping that their past experience will help you. But since the best mentors are also hoping to learn from their relationship with you, they should also be open to being wrong and to learning from the experience. If they’re not, that’s a big red flag that you’ve got the wrong mentor. 

So what happens when a mentor tells you what to do and you don’t agree? 

Never forget that it’s your company. Ultimately, even if you follow the advice of a mentor or board member, it’s still your fault if they were wrong! You took their advice. Gather feedback from your trusted advisors, but then make up your own mind and lead the company. 

Be direct if you decide to go in a different direction. The biggest mistake that I see with founders at TechStars is that they when they disagree with a mentor, they take the easy way out and simply try to avoid conflict. This often damages the relationship. The better tactic: Tell the mentor that you appreciate his or her advice and have considered it fully, but have decided to go in a different direction. The best mentors will respect this and stand behind your decision and try to help any way that they can, even if you’re ultimately proven wrong. Either way, both parties learn from the experience and there’s no respect lost. 

Don’t forget to revisit the issue over time. Check in with the mentor and report how things are going on a regular basis. You can do this with a simple email. The purpose is not to prove yourself right or wrong, but to remember that the mentor is in it to learn as well. The email can describe what’s working and what’s not, as well as provide another point of engagement. 

Close the feedback loop completely. Many entrepreneurs forget to do this part, and end up blowing what amounts to a golden opportunity. Remember, the opportunity to learn is often the reason why most good mentors try to help in the first place. One tactic I’ve seen is to put a simple “bet” on the table. If you’re ultimately right, the mentor buys you dinner; if you’re wrong, you pay. This is a playful way to keep things interesting. Ultimately you both win because you’ll end up having dinner together and building a stronger relationship.  

The best mentors for your business don’t need to be right. They just want to share their experiences, let you decide, and stand behind you 100 percent. Don’t be shy about telling them that you think they’re wrong and charging up the other hill. If the relationships you have with your mentors are genuine then they’ll respect you that much more—win or lose.

 

Last updated: Jan 17, 2012

DAVID COHEN is the founder and CEO of TechStars. Previously, he founded several software and Web technology companies. David is an active start-up advocate, advisor, board member, and technology advisor who comments on these topics on his blog at DavidGCohen.com.
@davidcohen




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