Matt Wallace, a Co-founder and Managing Director of ONOW , shares his experience of and insights about what works in virtual mentoring. ONOW partnered with the Miller Center to receive virtual mentoring as part of Frontier Incubators program.
The idea of a mentoring program for incubators presented a unique value proposition to us at ONOW Myanmar. We were placed in the virtual cohort of Frontier Incubators, an Australian Aid initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange, and I wasn’t sure how useful the experience could be. A close mentor-mentee relationship is a difficult one to manufacture, but the creation of a virtual cohort added an additional challenge to forming a strong mentoring relationship.
But we were in luck. Frontier Incubators paired us with Pamela Roussos from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, an accelerator program which specialises in virtual mentoring. As we look back over our work with Miller Center as part of the Frontier Incubators virtual cohort, we see two key elements that allowed our experience to be formative and valuable.
Understanding gets mentor and mentee on the same page. Execution helps the mentee write a better story for their organisation.
Incubators vary widely in their reasons for entering support programs like Frontier Incubators. An organisation may be seeking sweeping changes, or just small adjustments to their business model. The participants in Frontier Incubators come from different contexts across diverse Southeast Asia with varying programmatic emphases, and varying capacities within their leadership and program teams. The bottom line is that no two incubators are alike. Mentors help sort the differences out.
But aren’t mentors usually nearby? Aren’t they intimately involved in the lives of the leadership team? How can they possibly know how to help an incubator on the other side of the world? How can virtual mentoring even work?
Establishing a successful mentoring relationship requires understanding. Mentor and mentee need to get on the same page. To do this, the mentor needs to develop an understanding of the objectives of the Incubator. Pamela needed to identify what made ONOW unique, what made us pursue being a part of Frontier Incubators, and what we hoped to achieve. Then the mentor will turn her attention to understanding the models that the incubator applies. Pamela gave us the tools to clarify our business model, our impact model and our operational model, forming the next major step in setting ONOW up for success in the Frontier Incubators program.
First, we had that all-important first conversation. The first hellos and the first introductions. This could have been awkward, but we were motivated to get into the details, curious how Pamela would receive our excited explanations of what we can do and what direction ONOW is heading. Pamela asked a ton of probing questions; uncovering the capacities in our team, our competitive advantages, the program goals. She also set expectations. How frequently we would talk (about every 2 weeks), how available she was willing to be (email her anytime!), and what the process would be like (lots of work for us between calls!)
In that first call, Pamela listened as we clarified who ONOW is as an organisation. We were scattered and relatively unsure of what we wanted from this relationship, but we left the first meeting ready to run. But we had some homework to do. It was essential to understand how ONOW functions.
If we were going to achieve 4x growth from our current size, we would have to understand our unit economics, and how to manage such growth. We spent time thinking through our current operations, and where our primary staffing costs and hours are. Pamela provided us with templates and materials to identify our financial model. She directed us to a wealth of resources and to the Masterclasses produced by Frontier Incubators.
Next, together we analysed our models, determining which changes would result in the highest incremental impact. Should we add new staff? Should we digitise operations? Should we completely alter our post-incubation support? Every decision affected the finances, the operations, and the impact.
As mentioned above, the unique challenge in all of this was mentoring virtually. I was worried, because rather than white-boarding together, we needed to be prepared to do this by ourselves and bring our key thoughts to Pamela on a call. Rather than wrestling with the problems that popped up over coffee, we needed to communicate clearly to Pamela on calls that initially didn’t feel long enough. But Pamela has done this before. Her systems and tools prepared us for the conversations ahead of time, forcing us to get specific with our analysis and present the data in a form that we could process together.
She understood us, and we better understood ourselves.
It was a great experience with Pamela. She helped us think about strategic initiatives for our Startup program and it was very helpful for us to design our program better. Not only that but also she shared resources on how to create and design our program better. She cared for us and helped us and gave time as much as she can. Thanks a lot to Pamela!
— May Thinzar Aung, Assistant Director ONOW
Now that we’re on the same page, the next step is execution.
A strong mentor will help the mentee focus on what is important, and align organisational resources toward taking the key next steps in their organisational growth. Otherwise, the plans made with a great program partner may be lost in the busy status quo of daily operations. We accomplished this with what Pamela and Miller Center call “Strategic Initiatives”.
To achieve our identified objectives, we would need to make room for the new Initiatives we would pursue in the midst of regular operations. The process of analysing the organisation gave us a better sense of what resources we had available to tap into. We understood where we had latent staff capacity, and where we would need to make development hours available in our technology team.
In our first Strategic Initiative, we needed to identify our intended outcome. We chose to overhaul our post-class coaching structure, resulting in a system which would allow a single coach to support 30 entrepreneurs. Next, we established milestones which would provide evidence of progress toward completing the initiative. For instance, these included an assessment of the current coaching curriculum, process mapping of the hiring and on-boarding of new coaches, and the field testing of new materials. Finally, we had to consider the cost of the Initiative. How many staff hours? How much for field testing? Would we need outside help? Everything has a cost, and we needed to determine if we could pay it, or if we needed to raise it.
We launched the Initiative with a group gathering because we realised that these Initiatives would completely alter our approach to incubation. That would affect the people who work for us, so a celebration would be a strong way to get buy-in.
At its core, a Strategic Initiative is about playing the long game. When you realise that investing resources into a strategic shift will cost a lot of time and focus, you should have the long term perspective to continue pulling others toward seeing the long term benefits.
At this point, our mentor became our virtual encourager. Pamela had provided the perspective to assess where we needed to go. She had given us the tools to plan that process. And she was available to answer questions as we built the plan. Executing the plan was up to us, and she was there to virtually cheer us on!
ONOW is doing essential work, mentoring Matt and Thinzar to help scale their impact was meaningful to me. Their commitment to doing “home work” between calls was very important to make significant progress in a short period of time. Also their honest assessment of the current state, where their challenges were, and what they wanted to achieve helped us zero in very quickly on the strategic initiatives to focus on. It was a joy working with Matt and Thinzar! ”
— Pamela Roussos, Miller Center
The main difference between virtual mentoring and face-to-face mentoring is the importance of a focused and experienced mentor. There is less time available for the kind of laid back and wide-ranging conversations over a meal that you might expect from a face-to-face mentor relationship. In Pamela, ONOW had a focused mentor that understood the dynamics of virtual mentoring. Because of this, she helped us get focused too. She had the experience and the tools that we needed to help get our ideas into a format that was clear and concise.
We were fortunate that Pamela was also able to visit us in Myanmar toward the end of our time together. We got to have that wide-ranging, hours-long conversation over coffee, except that we had already established the mentorship and the direction we were heading. It was a celebration in its own right for the hard work done to get to where we are today!
When all is said and done, the primary requirement of a virtual mentoring relationship is the same as that of a face-to-face mentoring relationship: the commitment of both the mentor and the mentee to make it work. A mentor that is willing to listen pairs well with a mentee that is willing to learn and change.
So get an experienced mentor. Own the relationship and the work. And lose the pretence that you have it “together”. The end result is a stronger organisation that is delivering deeper impact, and an encouraging fan following you no matter where you are in the world.
Matt Wallace is Co-founder and Managing Director of ONOW, a social enterprise focused on tech-enabled incubation and financial capabilities especially with migrant women. ONOW has launched 450 microenterprises through its incubator, and has trained 175,000 people across Myanmar in financial capabilities through its Build3 Capabilities Platform. Matt earned an MA in Diplomacy and International Commerce, with a focus in Economic Development. Matt tweets @mattisawallace.
ONOW Myanmar is one of 31 incubator and accelerator organisations participating in the Frontier Incubators program.
You can also keep in touch via #FrontierIncubators on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Frontier Incubators is an initiative of the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange and is delivered by Conveners.org, SecondMuse and ygap. Photos courtesy of ONOW.