When Andrew Connors started mentoring Rupert Cross at the end of 2019 neither of them knew just what a challenging time lay ahead.
Their first introductory meeting was in December 2019, and since then Andrew and Rupert have met every four to six weeks – either virtually or face-to-face. Both have reported significant professional and personal benefits from the partnership.
Andrew has over 30 years’ experience in the corporate culture of commercial banking, supporting SMEs, mid and large Corporate companies on growth journeys. Now head of sector and region at Lloyds Banking Group, he’s passionate about supporting the West Midlands business economy and expanding his own perspectives and experience. This made becoming a mentor in Be the Business Mentoring for Growth programme a natural fit.
His eventual mentor pairing, Rupert Cross, founded a small digital marketing agency called 5874 with his brother, which had successfully grown to 20 staff and had an ambitious and global growth strategy. Due to a fundamental belief in the importance of continued learning through exposure to other people’s experiences and knowledge, after coming across Be the Business at a business show he embraced the opportunity to work with a mentor.
“Being matched with Andrew, with all his experience at Lloyds, started a process that surpassed my expectations,” he stated.
Mentoring through a pandemic
When Andrew and Rupert started working together, little did they know the scale and the nature of the challenge Rupert’s business would face with the world events that followed.
The first few months of mentoring had an incredibly positive focus. Andrew explained: “The mentoring meetings took place with Rupert, his co-owner Richard and their FD Emma. We had broad strategic conversations around the firm’s ambitious growth plans and how they could differentiate themselves in a competitive marketplace.”
But then, of course, the pandemic hit and Rupert’s business was thrown into a completely different place – one where fast but difficult decisions had to be made, where previous business planning became no longer relevant and where concerns for staff and everyone’s future took centre stage.
“When coronavirus struck, it was a really worrying time,” Rupert remembered. “We had to quickly make tough decisions, including reducing our team and scaling the business right down to protect ourselves. We were fortunate in being able to adapt quickly to remote working and technological challenges, but we had to also focus on reshaping our vision for the future. Our frank and detailed discussions became focused what happens next, how do we develop the business in the few years post-coronavirus”.
As a mentor, Andrew had a steep learning curve too. “I had to support Rupert through the huge challenges presented by a time of unprecedented uncertainty. Strategic planning gave way to crisis management, where I acted as a critical friend at a very distressing time and shared useful routines, tools and strategies practiced in larger businesses.
“It was vital we drew maximum benefit from our sessions, given how precious a resource the leadership team’s time was. So high quality discussions were completed with a clear plan of what would be discussed at the next meeting.”
It became clear to Andrew that there would be increased opportunities for 5874 given the increase in online trading and activity, bringing the possibility of growing revenues and further global expansion into its specialist field of ecommerce. This is ultimately what the two have worked together to do, resulting in the business now being in a stronger, more stable position with increased staff numbers, retained and new clients.
“Our next meeting in September will involve looking at a five-year growth plan for 5874, laying the foundation for what I believe will be a very exciting future,” Andrew said.
Learning from each other
Both Andrew and Rupert feel they have benefited hugely from their mentoring partnership and continue to do so. Meetings were in-depth, productive, insightful, supportive and, most importantly, fully focused on what Rupert needed.
“I know how to run my business and I understand my field and sector. But Andrew’s different experiences and perspectives, as well as support and ability to listen, became instrumental to our firm’s ability to survive and even thrive on the other side of this awful time. He became a key part of our conversations around management strategy and business planning.
“He also encouraged me to think deeply about what I personally wanted out of the business, for my team, my family, my life and my future and how to put in place the right plans to achieve this.”
Rupert describes Andrew’s impact as like that of a top-level coach working with a top-level sportsman. It’s not been about teaching the sport, but rather giving the benefit of a wider experience, bringing out potential and adding the “finishing touches and finesse”.
Meanwhile, Andrew has found mentoring an educational experience too. “I’ve learnt so much about the importance of leadership and culture, and how integral this is to the resilience of a small business, especially in the case of unforeseen challenges. It was fascinating to see how they support, develop and encourage their people, a magic ingredient which will enable them to stay strong”.
Every reason to get involved
When we asked Rupert what reason there would be for an SME leader to take on a mentor, his answer was simple. “Why wouldn’t you?”
As a great believer in drawing inspiration and knowledge from other successful leaders, Rupert saw his mentor partnership as a hugely beneficial opportunity, instrumental to their success and ongoing journey.
And the feeling is mutual. Andrew described their conversations as refreshing while the whole experience, despite being challenging and a great responsibility, has been enjoyable and satisfying.
“I have used my experience at Lloyds to benefit a growing business and I will always follow the fortunes of this exceptional team.
“My advice to anyone considering mentoring is to be brave and confident around the value you could bring to supporting another business. I’ve certainly learnt as much from the experience as my mentee, and a close insight into the workings and challenges of a small business makes us more empathetic and effective in supporting our SME clients. At Lloyds we can make a positive impact on the productivity of UK business and this is an opportunity we should take.”
Learn more about the Mentoring for Growth programme, find out how you can become involved or get access to an experienced mentor.