A business mentor may seem formal, expensive or out of reach, but there have never been more opportunities to access an experienced individual to bounce ideas off in times of need.
Being at the top is a lonely position. It’s difficult for staff to give advice on overall business strategy and, let’s face it, there are just some things you can’t share with them.
Relationships like those possible through a business mentor can be informal or structured, and vary in length. We spoke to three entrepreneurs to unpick why business mentors are valuable and how these relationships came about.
An ever-changing job role
Leaders have to learn on the job. The role evolves at every stage of a company’s growth – as soon as you learn how to cope with the company’s current size the structure changes again.
Leanne Goodwin joined recruitment agency Jobwise as an administrator when the role was done by hand without the support of a computer or the internet. She then spent 16 years working her way up through the ranks to become managing director of the 32-person company.
Goodwin had to learn a new role at each stage in her career. But it was the shift to MD that was most difficult, mainly because there was no one above her to learn from.
“External mentors have proved invaluable through my progression. There’s no course to go on to be an MD, so I was learning as I went along. The higher up the chain you go mentoring is an absolute must – it’s a lonely place to be,” she said.
Getting long-term direction
Mentors can provide perspective and an opportunity for business leaders to get out of the day-to-day running of the business and test potential ideas.
CEO Sacha Nitsetska relied on mentors to navigate moving from a city job at J.P. Morgan to founding a tech startup. His business, which actually connects people to mentors in their area, has grown to 12 employees and has several major blue-chip clients in its first year.
Nitsetska found she was left wondering what her priorities and the next step should be every few months. The mentor relationships she’s developed have helped with this.
“I work, work, work, and then I wonder ‘where I should go now?’ It’s something I do on a regular basis, maybe once every two months.
“Sometimes founders get so stuck in their own head they don’t see the wood for the trees. You need someone that’s going to see the 25 ways you’re banging your head against a wall that won’t crack,” she said.
When this happens Nitsetska sends a series of emails asking the contacts she has informal mentoring relationships with for a coffee. She then sits down with them and runs through what she’s been working on – getting advice without going into specific asks. This process led to the development of a new, gamified way to help the people on her platform share content, for example.
While long-term planning and goal setting are important, there’s lots of practical, day-to-day challenges a mentor can help with too.
“It can range from anything like recruitment processes to products you offer,” said Jobwise’s Goodwin. She added that without a financial background she was left scrambling to cope with everything from managing the P&L to accessing funding when her FD left and mentors were invaluable during this period.
Find out how four business leaders from a variety of sectors extracted value from a business mentor
Identifying a business mentor
Convinced by the argument that you a mentor could help your business? Finding one can be difficult.
Paid business coaches exist, but don’t always pay off. Sara Jones, managing director of training company Centre of Excellence, said she wasted money going down this route.
“I have invested over £10,000 each with two different business mentors and actually found that I was giving them ideas rather than me getting anything out of the sessions myself,” she remembered.
Jones believes the problem centred on them coaching as a way of making money, not because they had hands-on experience of scaling a business.
If you do go down this route it’s important to check out the credentials of anyone you engage with and, if possible, speak to other business owners they have worked with. Be really clear on the outcomes you want from the sessions and the areas of your business that you are looking to grow too.
Non-executive directors are another formal route to accessing support. Having skin in the game in the form of company equity helps ensure they are highly motivated and these positions are a draw for advisors with a depth of sector-specific experience.
That said, it’s more common for mentor relationships to evolve in a more informal way. Successful business people often want to pay it forward and help those that are in earlier stages of their journey.
“Finding the right person is key, you have to be able to trust and respect them,” advised Goodwin. “It provides an outlet for you. Very often they didn’t tell you what to do. It’s a bit like counselling. Going into it with an open mind and talking things through is one of the best ways to learn.”
She used a government-sponsored scheme that helped her find a number of mentors over several years. These relationships lasted nine months to a year.
Events, your own network and recommendation services are a useful route to go down. But could they be someone outside of your professional life?
The Centre of Excellence’s Jones now talks to her partner who also runs a business. For example, they thrashed out her idea to launch awards for the Centre’s coaches. She said this has been crucial to the 20-person company’s growth as it heads for £4m turnover in 2018.
Discover how Liz Smith and David Low have built a fruitful mentor relationship
Engaging a business mentor with a small ask
Mentors are normally successful business people. That means they’re time poor and you need to carefully consider what you’re asking for, particularly at the beginning of a relationship.
Nitsetska is a fan of the small ask and attended a series of tech events to meet business mentors, often approaching speakers.
“There were people queuing behind you. I had a phrase: ‘I’m building a mentorships platform, I would love for you to be a mentor on it. If you’re okay with that give me your email and I’ll keep you updated.’ The ask took 20 seconds,” explained Nitsetska.
Email conversations developed into informal coffee meetings and advice. Taking a low investment route like this in the initial stages allows both parties to figure out whether the relationship will be valuable.
Make sure it’s someone you enjoy spending time with and trust. Chatting over coffee or lunch can help tease out whether this fit exists. When trust develops it’s possible they will make introductions to potential clients or even invest in the business.
Be the Business has its own mentoring programme, Mentoring for Success, which launched through a pilot programme in Manchester and Birmingham. Find out how a business mentor could help your company.