Mentoring Matters: Intrepid Explorers Need Guides

“Everyone in business can benefit from having a mentor. Even mentors have mentors! Many entrepreneurs have more than one.” 

You don’t need to pass any exams to be a business owner; you don’t need a license to become an entrepreneur. There is no law that says you must be a confident sales person or understand a balance sheet. The myth is that ‘anyone can do it’. And the truth is that anyone can – though without practical business experience, lessons may be learned the hard way, and too many businesses flounder in the attempt. 

With this in mind, the UK government has recently launched an exciting new initiative called StartUp Loans, aimed at young people between the ages of 18-24, and I have been brought on board by Lord Young and James Caan as the programme’s Director of Mentoring.

Mentoring is something I am passionate about. A successful business person is never afraid to ask for advice; he or she understands that knowledge and experience offer a powerful advantage in a competitive marketplace. But mentors aren’t only for young people – they are invaluable for all business owners, at any stage of entrepreneurial development. 

HERE BE DRAGONS

If you were planning an expedition to the Arctic, where hidden dangers could jeopardise progress and the climate might change at a moment’s notice: would you travel without a map, without researching the terrain or consulting an experienced guide?

It’s very unlikely. The path to business success no less threatening and changeable. So why do hundreds of first-time business owners start up each year without sufficient planning or professional guidance? As I write this article, the StartUp Britain business tracker tells me that 300,784 new businesses have started up this year so far. Statistics tell us that one in three of those is likely to start struggling within eighteen months. Common sense tells us that business experience is useful, and if you lack expertise yourself in any areas, a business mentor can help you to navigate your path to success – even if you have to budget for their expert time and knowledge. 

A mentor is someone who can provide invaluable skills and practical advice to help you to get to where you want to go – faster and with greater focus. 

Six ways that a business mentor can help you and your business to succeed: 

  • They have years of experience and have learnt from their own mistakes.
  • They can provide skills and practical advice.
  • They can provide perspective and see things objectively.
  • They understand the importance of managing cashflow.
  • They may introduce you to their contacts and resources.
  • They can help you to plan ahead and take action with greater focus.
  • An experienced mentor could help you make great enough strides to cover the cost of retaining their expertise.

Ask any business owner who they would most like to have as a mentor and most will list assorted Dragons from the BBC’s Den, Lord Sugar or Sir Richard Branson. But there are hundreds of other mentors available; many of them running successful businesses in your home town or local area.

Before approaching a potential mentor, ask yourself what you need a mentor for. What resources are missing from your business?

What specifically do you want and need to learn? Consider who you could learn from. Consider your budget; what fee can you afford? Do you have skills that they might need? Might the arrangement be reciprocal? Bear in mind that you may want to change your mentor as your needs change and you gain knowledge and experience. Some of the most valuable mentors will probably be in areas that are complementary to your own.

There are broadly three kinds of mentors: Short-term troubleshooters; Specialist advisors; and Long-term experts.

Troubleshooters
There are times in the development of every business when an injection of short-term expertise is required. Perhaps you are thinking of hiring staff; you may want to launch a new product line, buy or move to new premises, take part in a merger, or have some tough restructuring decisions to take. You may be thinking of selling the company and need help with valuation. Short-term mentors can offer specialist expertise at particular stages of business development, but they are less likely to be involved in your business long-term.

Specialist advisors
Specialist mentors are usually involved on an ongoing basis. It is not unusual for a business to involve two or three mentors at the same time, each providing different skills and experience; or they may be individuals who bring valuable commercial experience to your business.

Long-term mentors
Some mentors share their wisdom over a long period. The ideal mentor for this role will have at least 5-10 years more experience than the business owner and may well have knowledge or experience in the same field. This type of mentor is like a non-executive director. Their involvement may last a few years, or for the lifetime of the business.

There is no magic formula for finding or choosing a mentor: the ideal person simply has the skills and knowledge that are right for you and your business at the time.

A surprising number of successful business people are willing to offer their advice and experience – often for free. Successful business people can often provide more incisive insights in ten minutes than can be gleaned from a textbook in three years. The ideal mentor will help you to regain focus, fire you up with enthusiasm and help you to see with greater clarity.

THE RULE OF RECIPROCATION

I have had some wonderful mentors in my life and also enjoy and benefit from mentoring others. I am also a great believer in the Rule of Reciprocation. Consider offering your time to others too. It is to mutual advantage, as the best way to learn and to retain information is to relay what you have learned to someone else. In my book you should always ‘give before you get’.

What mentors are not:

  • A mentor is not a business consultant.
  • A mentor is not a coach (though may have a coaching approach)
  • A mentor is not a counsellor.

A mentor does not run your business. You do. As a business owner you will always own the outcome. They are there only to offer guidance and insights that you ask for.

The advantage of travelling your business adventure with a mentor is that they will help you to anticipate obstacles in advance, provide guidance through well-charted waters and help you travel the most direct route to success.

BEV JAMES is CEO of The Academy Group including the Entrepreneurs’ Business Academy and The Coaching Academy – the world’s largest training organisation for coaches. She is bestselling author of DO IT! or DITCH IT (Virgin Books) and has been recently appointed Mentoring Director for StartUp Loans, a new government initiative chaired by James Caan. 

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