The marvels of mentoring

The mentor-mentee relationship can be rewarding for both sides, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 24 Oct 2017
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The magic in mentoring happens behind closed doors.  The mentor and mentee relationship is a deeply ‘private’ one, where in a discreet one-to-one session, master shares pearls of wisdom with his or her pupil. Personal stories are shared, picked apart, and put back together again. This ritual allows the pupil to extract the fleeting ‘secrets of success’ that are so hard to capture on one’s own. While the actual process of mentoring is shrouded in privacy, the energy created from these special relationships has tangible ‘public’ benefit.

It may come as a surprise to some that the great Steve Jobs mentored young Mark Zuckerberg at the founding stages of Facebook and often met with the young entrepreneur to help him think through the vision for his business. When hearing of Jobs’ death, Zuckerberg remarked: ‘Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world. I will miss you.’

Christian Dior’s mentorship of the budding fashion designer Yves St. Laurent is another famous example. The mentoring of Zuckerberg and St. Laurent, while private affairs, have transformed the public face of their respective sectors.

Sparring with the Dragon

Those close to me know that I’m a beneficiary of the marvels of mentorship myself. After many years of hopelessly searching for the right coach in my 20s, I found my match in James Caan, the former Dragon and successful businessman turned investor, almost as soon as I landed in London. Having just come out of an MBA course at Oxford in 2009, I could be described at the time as wildly ambitious and eager to take on any challenge, but lacking quite significantly in commercial acumen and focus. Having already had one failed business under my belt, I wasn’t completely ‘raw’, and my hunger and eagerness sparked an interest in James. 

Through countless one-to-one sessions over many years, James shared life lessons, and I listened. As I started to apply what I learned into real investments we made together, the relationship grew stronger, but less one-directional. As a maturing pupil, I was not shy to question and challenge.

As we slowly built up our own little property empire in a range of businesses we are today very proud of co-owning, including 90 North, Accouter, and emoov, our one-to-one sessions evolved from lectures into ‘sparring matches’. James clearly subscribed to the Steven Spielberg philosophy of mentorship: ‘The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.’

Being mentored by James challenged me to ask deep questions about my own philosophy in business and led me to creating my own personal investment style and brand of entrepreneurship. 

The Beginner’s Mind

Who benefits more, the mentor or the mentee? The answer is not as straightforward as one would think.  In their Harvard Business School article ‘Cognitive Fitness’, Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts turn to Buddhism for some answers. Entrepreneurs and leaders need to have an open attitude that Buddhist monks refer to as the beginner’s mind, ‘a willingness to step back from prior knowledge… in order to start over and cultivate new options.’

They cite the thinking of the great monk Shunryu Suzuki who claims, ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’

The Harvard article demonstrates through extensive research that mentors can stay cognitively fit by adopting a mentee: ‘While it’s widely known that being a protégé benefits rising executives, an ongoing stream of research reveals that the person who often gets the most value from a mentoring relationship is the mentor, who is exposed to information, queries, and ideas from which she may otherwise be too remote.’

Perhaps Jobs mentored Zuckerberg to stay abreast of new ideas and innovations?  Perhaps James mentored me for similar reasons? I don’t have a definitive answer to this, but I am sure that mentoring is definitely a two-way street.

Final Thoughts

One of the greatest marvels of mentoring is the deep bond established between mentor and mentee, breaking out of the confines of formality into a true friendship. This bond has its roots in trust and shared values, codified over countless hours of private confessions and feisty sparring matches.

There are elements of your style which your mentees will take with them, and there are elements that they will leave with you. The relationship transforms from wizard and apprentice to a meeting of equals. Some of those that I have mentored over the years (a certain ‘Tom G’ comes to mind) are my most loyal confidants, and I equally am theirs. My mentees eventually go and find their own worthy mentee to share their hard-earned wisdom with. Perhaps most rewarding for me is that those I have mentored, and sometimes those they in turn have taken under their wing, are inducted into my very own fraternity, one held together by an unbreakable code of honour and a shared vision of the world.  

Faisal Butt is the CEO of Spire Ventures, a property focused private equity boutique, and the Founder and Chairman of Pi Labs, Europe’s leading proptech venture capital firm.

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