Ask @StartupCFO: How do I deal with ‘mentor whiplash’?


Back in my VC days we ran the FounderFuel accelerator. Our program was blessed with many strong mentors. We regularly brought mentors and companies together.

While this was all good, often the founders would complain of “mentor whiplash”. Mentors would have conflicting advice for these founders.

I see similar issues with more established companies when it comes to their boards. Often they turn to their board for advice. And often, individual board members have different advice. What are you supposed to do? Especially if the conflicting advice comes from investors that made big bets on you.

Here’s the thing: All the advice you’re getting is just input. You are supposed to digest that input and make the final call.

If you ask your board member what you “should” do in a given situation, you will definitely get an answer. After all, you don’t get to be a VC unless you’ve had some success along the way. That success and experience gives you strong convictions about how things should be done. This is especially so with VCs who were formerly founders or operators.

So, again, ask these experienced VCs what you should do and you will get an answer. But, there are risks there. For one, if you do this often enough, they may start to doubt your leadership abilities. For another, no one can make a better call than you.

For all the experience and ability to recognize patterns, every context is different. Only you live and breath this company. A mentor or board member can’t possibly have enough info to make the “right” call. They’re not involved enough.

It may sound like semantics, but it’s far better to ask these people how they would approach a given situation rather than ask them what you should do in that situation. There are subtle but important differences in that wording. In the former you are just seeking input. In the latter, you’re asking them for direction.

And remember this: If you follow the advice that you are given by others – you are accountable, not them. That same board that gave you the advice will hold you to task if that advice turns out to have been bad. So treat everything as input. Align it against your values and your vision for the company. Then you make the call. That’s actually what the best mentors and directors want anyway.

This article was syndicated with permission from @StartupCFO‘s blog


Mark MacLeod

Since 1999, Mark MacLeod has been helping fund, grow and exit venture-backed startups. Mark has over 14 years of experience as a CFO for leading companies such as FreshBooks, Shopify, Tungle, and many others. In addition, Mark spent three years as a General Partner for Real Ventures. Mark now runs SurePath Capital Partners the leading investment bank advising the SMB software and commerce markets.

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