Dave Howell explains how startups can get the most from a business mentor
Who do you go to for business advice? Often, small business owners struggle with a wide variety of issues, when advice and mentoring is in ready supply.
Research carried out for Growth Vouchers, a government programme that helps businesses cover the cost of professional advice in areas such as finance, cash flow, management skills and sales and marketing, found that 69 per cent of decision makers in small businesses have approached someone in their personal life for help, compared to 57 per cent who have taken advice from a professional.
Business minister Matthew Hancock says: “Expert business advice is incredibly important for many of the UK’s smaller firms and helps make sure they reach their potential. We know professional advice can be costly and that there is a lot of choice out there, so we are simplifying the government’s business support schemes to make it easier to find and access the right support at the right time. This is all part of our plan to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business.”
Asking for help is never easy, but those businesses that have actively engaged with mentoring services almost universally report they have benefited from the relationship. Owner/ managers in particular lament the fact that it can be lonely at the top, but mentoring delivers not only practical advice, but also someone who can act as a sounding board when required.
“Mentoring has been around for many years,” management consultant and business coach Ivan Goldberg says. “I acted as a mentor 30 years ago for candidates of the Prince’s Trust. Changes in the understanding of mentoring and a better definition have resulted in a more professional approach.
“Mentoring is not consultancy or coaching, although there are facets of each included. It is the ability of the mentor to develop expertise out if experience and then communicate it in an understandable and useable form.”
Aimed at the small and micro business owner, the Get Mentoring scheme led by the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative is one of the many new resources that have become available over the last few years. Mentorsme.co.uk and Menter a Busnes have also been providing qualified mentors to a wide range of businesses, with mentoring also available from the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs.
Mentoring has been shown to deliver sustainability across the small business sector, with 70 per cent of small companies that use mentoring surviving more than five years, which is double the national average, and 20 per cent more likely to expand.
However, many owner/managers don’t use mentors because they misunderstand how the relationship operates, the potential costs involved and because of an unwillingness to ask for the help they need.
“For an effective relationship, there needs to be willingness on the mentee’s side to receive advice positively and objectively, as well as for the mentor to understand they could be providing sensitive feedback on a business that is incredibly emotionally important to its owner,” Cat Elliot, senior partner recruitment manager at online retailer notonthehighstreet.com, says.
According to a study of mentoring in the creative sector by innovation charity Nesta, mentoring improves owner/managers’ abilities to analyse their companies, whether in terms of financial management, sales opportunities or competitive positioning. This means mentees may see their businesses in a more realistic and detailed light at the end of the mentoring. It is therefore not hard to understand how the greater wisdom and perspective they gain through the mentoring process also makes owner/managers more adept at recognising the challenges their businesses face.
Recognition that a mentor can be of value is the first step to using these services effectively. When key decisions have to be made, owner/ managers need a sounding board, which is where mentors can offer practical, actionable advice. Also, mentors are able to look at your business objectively and assess how it can be improved or how effective your business planning has been.
Finding the right mentor is vitally important, as Dr Mark Mason, chairman of app development company Mubaloo and chairman of the Prince’s Trust leadership group south west, says: “Too much experience from a mentor who is from a larger company may mean the mentor has forgotten some of the early challenges. Often, when the mentor started out in business, the landscape was completely different. The challenges that existed in the past may be completely different to the challenges being faced today.”
Rachel Cheetham, manager at business support specialist GrowthAccelerator, believes it’s important to make a distinction between mentoring and coaching: “They are similar forms of support, but slightly different, so it’s important to consider which will be of the most benefit, depending on your needs.
“Coaching focuses on the business, its performance and the broader picture, while mentoring focuses on the abilities of the individual. It doesn’t matter where you are with your business or your career, you will always benefit from having that independent pair of eyes to support you and help you focus.”
Mentoring has evolved over the last few years. And as with any service, is it important to take your time and assess your needs honestly. Only then will you be able to locate and work with a mentor that will deliver what you require.
Owning and successfully running a small business means keeping a number of plates spinning simultaneously. Often forgotten is the support owner/managers need at each stage of their business’ development.
“The power of having someone on your side, but neutral to talk things through with, must not be underestimated,” Rachel Clacher, co-founder and director of telephone answering specialist Moneypenny, says. “Sometimes the simple act of vocalising a problem or situation can have a profound effect on your ability to find a solution. If you don’t have someone ready to listen, you don’t get the opportunity to talk things through.”
There are a number of formal resources that can put business owners in touch with appropriate mentors, but don’t forget your own network. If you admire another business owner, why not ask them for advice? Often, the request will be well received. The relationship you already have with that business owner is the perfect foundation onto which to build an effective mentor/mentee relationship.
Dr Mark Mason says: “A mentor should always challenge you, play devil’s advocate if you like. They are not there to make decisions for you, but help you see the wood for the trees. So expect the relationship to be challenging - if it isn’t, you won’t learn anything. As someone once said to me, if two people agree, one is unnecessary.”
A mentor can’t resolve an issue by waving a magic wand. They can advise you on something specific, but often a mentor will offer the best advantage over the longer term as someone you can speak to when planning the development of your business.
As a lone owner/manager, it can be difficult to gain perspective, as you are so close to your company. A mentor has the distance and independence that can be invaluable.