On Mentoring in Startups & Corporates

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mentorOver the course of the past few years, I have been mentoring within the ecosystem, focus my efforts mainly through INSEAD Business School and JFDI.Asia. Sometimes, I might end up giving some advice to entrepreneurs who I might be interested to invest in their companies. For a while, I want to convey my thoughts on mentoring and how that has evolved over the years. A recent feedback session I have with JFDI.Asia prompted me to pen my thoughts on mentoring.

I learned how to be a mentor during when I was in academia. It was probably the best place to start for me. Particularly, I have worked with truly brilliant exceptional talent, not just in mentoring them through teaching them but also worked with them in research projects. The excitement in working with top talent often challenged me personally as I know that I can learn as much or probably more from them. Some of them have become tenured professors in the process. Particularly, a few of them ended up in publishing research publications with me. When I came back to Singapore, I guided students from NUS with research projects and subsequently helped them to move overseas to further their PhDs through people who I have collaborated with previously.

Then when it came to startups, I did the same, mainly with Chalkboard (interns) and SGE (employees and interns). One mistake I recognised was that I should have used the same approach for employees similar to the interns. In a place like Cambridge (which I equate that it would be similar to top technology clusters like Silicon Valley), you will find people not just with great talent, but also a passionate and humble attitude in working hard towards their goals in life. That’s the ideal place for mentors and to me, you are living in an utopia to work with great people everyday. In Singapore, you have to adopt the opposite approach. There is a dearth of talent and I decided that it’s a waste of time to find people with talent. I searched for people who have a passion in learning and are able to fight their way back even if they made mistakes. If an intern is here to work with me thinking that they can cruise and pour coffee for the rest of us, they are definitely in the wrong place. The interns I have worked with were given tough challenges. That often brought me in conflict with people within the startup who have the attitude that CVs and talent are more important than the other qualities you have.

For any intern I have mentored, I actually plan what they would do in my startup or the work environment that I am in. I would relate my experience in Chalkboard because I have trained not just one but at least five successful interns (and I won’t name them). I typically start them with a simple problem which we were trying to solve in our company, and then progressed from there. Every problem I gave was related to a bigger picture that would fit together in the future. Of course, some of them excelled in the simple problems and progressed while others failed. I gradually put them in front of my customers and get them to work on more challenging technology problems. There was an occasion where our APIs were severely hammered by multiple apps which we are serving. An emergency meeting between the engineering team and interns led us to split the solution to our problem in three steps. We solved the near and middle term problem immediately over the course of four hours and then proceed to deal with the long term issue over 3 weeks with a successful migration from a SQL to a noSQL database with a better architecture, handled by an intern and a senior engineer. One memorable event was during my wedding day when the Chalkboard server went down because of an internal failure with the Amazon Web Services server. I had no engineering team left after we have decided to close the company. I turned to the same engineering interns who came to the rescue and they helped me out during my wedding day.

For those interns who have done well with me, I am confident and sure that they are going to be successful someday on their own. Some of them went on to do more interesting things in their lives. Often times, I kept in touch with them and if they need anything from me, I do my best to advise them in their own interests for the next stage of their careers, depending on whether they want to be entrepreneurs or go to the corporate route. I see beyond nationalities as I have worked with local and overseas interns. If you want to be mentored by me, I won’t care less about your nationality as long as you proved to be passionate, competent and independent to me.

As for JFDI and INSEAD Business School, I see myself as an advisor, where I typically helped the startups to establish links with the press or guide them with questions arising from their work, for example, equity splitting between founders, structuring the term sheet negotiations with investors or help think through their products which I enjoyed most. Lately, I begin to think more about scaling teams because it is one of the crucial ingredients that I identified to be important before coming back to the startup world. To these organisations, I often raised my feedback to them that I will like to know if my advice or engagement have delivered value to them. It’s kinda of a customer service training for me, because I will be happy if that short thirty minutes to one hour have enabled them to do better things. That means that I like to hear feedback from the people who come to me thru these two channels, because I do know deep inside that there may exist times where I can’t be of much help to the people seeking advice. That also helped me to fine tune how I can provide better value to the people who are seeking my counsel.

There is a major shift in thinking about mentoring since I moved to a corporate career (while helping SGE before it got acquired) two years back. I have extended that the type of mentoring I did with interns who worked with me to people who are hired to work with me as well. The reason why I have decided to mentor every employee who worked with me is that I truly believe that everyone should have the capacity to grow and move forward. I found that it worked only if they wanted to move forward as well.

You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want to have. Some people believed that this is not scalable, and sometimes, in order to build great teams, you have to do things which are not scalable by first glance (and it is not an intuitive insight in the first place), and realise how you can scale them later. Through this experience, I have found a scalable model in the midst and would share how one can do this in another post later in the future.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist