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  • John Frazier

Mentorship and meaning as a founder

How can mentorship support us through times of transition in our worklife? And can it help bring a greater sense of meaning to our work? United Effects founder and MeaningSphere team member Bo Motlagh shares how being mentored and mentoring helped him start and build his business.

A man looking at something on a laptop he is being shown

I was always comfortable making big changes in my career. Changes like when I shifted the focus of my career trajectory from QA to Enterprise Architecture, or when I decided to take the plunge and become a tech startup founder despite the odds. Everyone is wired differently, and I am someone with a bias toward action. But I didn't do it alone. I’d like to take this opportunity to share how others have supported me through example and mentorship.

I was introduced to MeaningSphere about a year ago when I engaged as an advisor to help with their product launch. MeaningSphere is an interesting company focused on helping others find meaning with their work. As it happens, my work with MeaningSphere has also coincided with my time as a first-time founder of my own startup company, United Effects. This coincidence has allowed me to contemplate the overall concept of meaning at work from a new perspective. It’s no longer my work or my career that is the center of what I accomplish as a founder. As I live my meaning, clocking in and out of each day building my company, I also, in some small way, carry a piece of the meaning for every person who has put their trust in my vision. Every partner, investor, customer, and employee is now part of that equation, because each choice I make impacts them. This realization has allowed me a different perspective and contemplation of meaningful work.

Through that contemplation, I realize that while there are many elements to the dynamics of my life which have made my career changes, successes, and failures possible, one of these elements which I think has been an essential ingredient, is that of mentorship.

I collect mentor-oriented relationships. That means that whether I am being mentored or mentoring someone else, when opportunities for this level of collaboration present themselves, I try to be open to them. And to be clear, it is very much a collaborative relationship and not a hierarchal one. In my experience, the best mentor-based relationships are ones where both people are open to teaching and learning. They become the basis of lifelong friendships and mutual growth. When these relationships are artificially structured so that the role of mentor and mentee are hardwired and unchanging, the dynamics of the relationship eventually become stale, restrictive, authoritative, or even strangely parental.

The people I call mentors have been with me throughout my career. In my early twenties, when I was being thrown into high-profile consulting engagements across the country, it was my mentors who helped me understand how to be successful, pushing me forward to succeed or fail on my own terms, but being there to ensure that even if I failed, I could do it safely and learn.

Two women working on a laptop

As I transitioned my career to development, architecture, and leadership, I continued to rely on mentors to help me understand and manage the dynamics of senior leadership in high-growth companies.

Today, mentors are a huge part of my startup. From the beginning, I knew that I was not going to succeed at building United Effects alone. That’s where the name comes from: when the right people come together, their combined impact, their “united effect,” can do amazing things. The co-founders I chose were people who had, at times, mentored me and whom I had supported whenever possible. When we dove into startup land headfirst together, I quickly reached out to my more experienced mentors as well. I speak to 2-3 of them weekly on an individual basis. I also bring them and others together monthly as part of an advisory board to help ensure I’m getting as much feedback and guidance as possible.

The trick to initializing these relationships has been simple: I ask for help or offer mine. In my experience, a simple act of vulnerability and a willingness to reciprocate is the basis of any good mentor/mentee relationship and beyond. Since becoming a founder, I’ve reached out to thousands of people in one form or another. What I have been most surprised by is that most people genuinely want to help, even when they don’t personally know you. I’ve built amazing relationships just by starting a conversation with a stranger by saying, “I need your help, if you’re willing.”

So, what does all this mentor stuff have to do with meaningful work? Recently, and somewhat inspired by MeaningSphere itself, I read the works of Victor Frankl. One quote from his book Man’s Search for Meaning stands out in my memory:

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life…”

I believe what Frankl is saying is that “meaning” is a personal and subjective concept. There is no answer I or anyone else can give you; instead, it is a process and an effort through which each person comes to their own answer. I believe meaning at work is no different and I think the tools and science that MeaningSphere is employing to help people reflects the nature of such a journey.

One of my tools for meaningful work is forming relationships through being a mentor and being mentored. These people in my life have been an essential foundation of support to buffer the uncertainty of change and risk associated with the growth of my career, of my skills, and even my startup.

What about you? Who might you ask to mentor you during your next big transition, and who might benefit from your mentorship?

Find out more about how MeaningSphere can support you in exploring the role of meaning in your work.


Bo Motlagh is the founder of United Effects and part of the MeaningSphere team.

Image credit: Shutterstock


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