By Charles Kofi Fekpe
Experience, we have been told, is the best teacher. Sadly, experience really is the teacher of fools. I have often asked the question, “why go through an experience in order to learn something that somebody else has already been through, learnt from, and is willing to share?” And until I find a convincing answer, I will hold on to the conclusion that mentorship is the best teacher, not mere experience. I believe in simplicity and on that basis, I define mentorship simply as “an enterprise journey in which a mentor, who has previously travelled on such a journey, leads the mentored on his.” There are a few inherent assumptions that underlie the validity of this definition and without which a mentor-mentored relationship will not work – and most of these I have grasped from my own very personal experiences in setting up my first consultancy “CFEKPE Consulting Ltd and in becoming a Published Author:
Mentors are usually chosen by protégés and not vice versa. This is the only basis upon which mentorship can be beneficial to the protégé. More often than not, when a mentor chooses a protégé, it is for the purpose of succession planning – in other words, the mentor is merely grooming someone to take after him. Even though the protégé will learn a lot, he is doing so in order to satisfy the continuity plan of the mentor. So why does the protégé have to select their mentor? Well, primarily because only the protégé knows best, where his journey is taking him, what enterprise path he wants to walk and therefore only he knows who has the matching skills, experiences, abilities etc to mentor him on such a path. Simply put, it is the only way a chosen mentor can mentor a protégé through the protégé’s eyes.
The protégé must give full access to all parts of his enterprise to be effectively led by his mentor. You see, by the time a protégé locates a successful individual to be his mentor, that individual would have already earned a track record of successes – and NO successful person likes to be associated with failures, especially if it can be avoided. As a result of this winning mind-set of mentors, it is close to impossible to find a mentor who will be happy to accept mentorship access to certain aspects of your enterprise and not others.
Mentors understand that it is the sum of the whole that creates success and that NO successes can be created with individual parts of any enterprise – if you limit their access and freedom to impact you, they would have smelt failure in the future and refused to mentor you. I have personally had experiences of people coming to me and saying “I need you to mentor me in only this aspect or this aspect but not that aspect”. And I have bluntly but politely said, “I am sorry I can’t”. Truth is, I was being asked to help them sit in a car and drive, but at the same time, being restricted from looking at the dashboard, viewing the engine, checking the tire pressure etc. They just wanted me to sit in the car and help them drive(figuratively speaking).
Now Africans, especially young Africans are realising that, (i) they do have potential and (ii) they can’t keep relying on their governments to make life work for them. As a result of these realisations, an era is unfolding in which many are diving into the energy of entrepreneurship, albeit blindly. Sadly however, most of these newbies, irrespective of how brilliant their entrepreneur ideas are, will crash along the way because, they have no idea how business works or they simply have too little time to master the dynamics of Business – these are crucial reasons for mentoring to start taking grounds in Africa. For the already successful mentor, it is an opportunity for him to do right, what he may have done wrong and to point out the holes he previously tripped into by ignorance.
Finally, the mentor must have either walked the same enterprise road before or plied other very similar enterprise routes. Let’s face it. If a mentor is leading you in a path he has never experienced before himself, then he is leading you in theory – and that, is what classrooms are for. So why exactly is mentoring even needed in the context of Africa? Well, quite simply, mentorship in the past, has taken different forms in the African context, from receiving several pieces of advice to working under someone and learning the ropes. However, mentoring, especially in the context of enterprise has never been an actual formalized activity. In the past also (and still is in several African countries), entrepreneurship has never been formally encouraged. It was never taught in schools, it was never taught at the work place and as such, it was the few restless and daring ones in society that engaged in the preserve of starting their own businesses etc. For these few, I am certain, they will truthfully say it was a very tough road to walk – it doesn’t mean it necessarily has to be repeated for the new generation of African entrepreneurs.
So what are the approaches to Mentorship – 3 ways actually: either the protégé is mentored from behind, from the front, from the side or a mixture of all three:
1. Simply put, being mentored from the front refers to the mentor carrying out his own business, in his own enterprise, leading the way as he usually would and the protégé following behind to watch and learn how it is done. It is effective when the protégé has not yet started anything on their own and are willing to learn as much as they can before plunging into the process of enterprise.
2. Being mentored from the back requires that the protégé has already started his enterprise and is leading the way in it. The mentor, in this approach figuratively only stands behind the protégé and watches him run his own enterprise, guiding him as he goes along. With this, the protégé is more or less in control and is allowed to learn as much by feeling his way forward. The Mentor watches keenly but only comes in if and only if the protégé is veering drastically off a right course.
3. Mentoring from the side, means the mentor allows the protégé to operate an enterprise with him side by side as equals perhaps in say a joint venture enterprise or similar. It is the quickest way for the protégé to learn maturity and it will normally involve a project that doesn’t involve too high a risk associated with its failure.
In conclusion, mentorship and its associated need to be mentored, is really a mind-set of those who passionately want to succeed – it really is about knowing that you do not have it all in you to be successful; it’s about knowing that you have a greater chance of success learning to avoid the pitfalls on a journey that others before you have travelled – that’s mentorship in action.