Business mentors help you step back and view your business more strategically. Lots of them are free to use. Why not try it?
Every business owner knows that even though we get 24 hours in a day, it’s never enough. There are emails to answer, books to balance, fires to fight, people to manage, meetings to host – and that’s before you’ve even thought about preparing for that important pitch on Tuesday.
So it’s no huge surprise that we all too often simply can’t or don’t make time to take a step back to look at the business: to spend a day or half-day a month reassessing the mid- and long-term strategy for growth and spotting new efficiencies.
This is precisely where a business mentor comes into play. They help you look at your business from an outside point of view and take the time to work on weaknesses, potential that could be unlocked, and strategy across any facet of the business you choose. But I bet that some of you are already thinking: “I don’t need a mentor”.
Many entrepreneurs have never considered or felt the need for a mentor. Others feel that there is simply no merit in using one – after all, how could someone from outside the business possibly help in guiding it forward? Then there’s the time commitment of meeting regularly, possible cost implications, the long and potentially fruitless search for finding a mentor.
“There is also probably still this British culture thing that you’ve failed if you’ve asked for help,” says Jackie Jenks, mentoring manager for Lloyds. “Plus people think mentoring means someone telling you what to do and giving advice.
“Actually, it’s completely the opposite – and it is against the mentoring code of practice to give advice and make someone dependent on you. Mentoring is really about empowering people to have confidence in their own decisions, and about giving a business space to explore ideas and solutions.
“It’s like having a critical friend. They are supportive, and challenging as to what could work, but it’s up to the business to decide what to do.”
Mentoring: the benefits for business
Michael Korn is the director of KwickScreen.com, the manufacturer of retractable room dividers for hospitals that was recently named the Lloyds TSB Best Start-Up. He agrees with Jenks that the relationship with a mentor is more about helping you see your own decisions and business clearly, rather than someone giving you advice. A mentor should be a sounding board, not a teacher.
“It’s like the business version of having a shrink,” he says. “They are 100% focused on listening to you. It helps you get perspective and constantly reassess your long-term stuff to do.”
Korn meets his mentor once a month. “It’s nice when [the relationship is] structured – you get to reflect on where you were a month ago and the problems you had then compared with now. Otherwise you can get too involved in the fire-fighting issues of the day.”
During their monthly meet, Korn’s mentor asks “questions to make you reflect” on business development. “There is a skill in being a mentor. Asking the right questions brings out something, it makes an impact. It makes you realise things you’ve got that you didn’t realise were so good.
“For example, we became an Olympics supplier two years ago. We never thought much about it but when talking to Gary, our mentor, we realised we’re probably one of the smallest suppliers – and that is a really brilliant achievement. So we’ve started to promote ourselves more as a supplier of the Olympics.”
KwickScreen is growing at more than 100% a year, and mentoring has helped Korn understand how to get internal structures in place to manage that growth. Korn’s mentor Gary works with small businesses at Lloyds Commercial and, as Korn puts it, “has seen hundreds of businesses succeed and fail so has years of experience observing small businesses”.
Gary has helped Korn implement the practices Korn feels he needs to make KwickScreen “more professional”. Although KwickScreen has never taken bank finance, Korn feels it could well need to one day to sustain its fast growth. With the help of his mentor, he now understands how his business needs to operate in order to stand the best chance of getting that finance.
How can you find a business mentor?
The struggle to find the right mentor has always been one of the main reasons that more British businesses don’t use one. Because however fantastic a mentor might be, if you can’t find them, they’re obviously no use at all.
Traditionally, entrepreneurs and business managers have turned to their networks, friends and family to either mentor them or refer someone else who might be able to. But always asking around can take too long when you need a fresh perspective on business strategy and development now. Also, an existing relationship can cloud the objectivity needed from a mentor.
Luckily, there are now a plethora of services, organisations and websites dedicated to helping you find a mentor who suits your business, experience and personality. The latest superstar mentoring offering is MentorsMe.com, a free online gateway that helps SMEs find mentoring organisations and services in their area (it is usually best to go local with mentors). All the mentoring organisations featured have been quality screened.
MentorsMe.com lets you search according to your business life stage, your area, what type of contact you prefer (phone, face-to-face, online), and whether you want paid or unpaid mentoring.
Lloyds Commercial has been supporting the work of MentorsMe.com, and is also leading what Jenks describes as a “business finance task force” with other banks to encourage, support and facilitate business mentoring.
As part of the drive, Jenks has recruited 360 volunteers from different departments across the bank who are keen to mentor in their area of expertise, whether that be finance, growth, exporting, marketing or customer service. You can find these mentors by contacting Lloyds Commercial or going into your local Lloyds branch, or by searching MentorsMe.com and ticking the box labelled “Interested in bank mentors”.
Making your business mentoring relationship work
Jenks advises choosing your mentoring organisation carefully, as they are suited to different types of businesses. Some may also charge a fee. “Once you’ve chosen your organisation, it’s best to be very, very open about what support you’re looking for, as the organisations do the matching of the mentors to the mentees.”
The way to structure a mentoring relationship is open to how you and your mentor want it to work. It might mean an occasional phonecall when you feel the need, or it might be more structured, such as a once-a-month face-to-face meeting.
It’s critical to lay out both your expectations of how the relationship will develop in your first meetings. You both need to understand the boundaries and objectives of the relationship. It’s not a bad idea to set targets for what you want to achieve together.
You can ask for a mentor to focus on one specific area of the business (such as online strategy, or importing from China), or opt for someone who can offer a more holistic approach.
Jenks points out that at Lloyds Commercial you can have “more general mentors, who can then call in one of our specialist mentors just for one session”. This is particularly useful since she has noted that “sometimes what someone originally thinks they need actually turns out not to be the core issue at all.
“For example, one person was looking for help with marketing strategy and planning, [but through mentoring realised] the issue was actually with the whole decision-making and managing structure – which was where the marketing decisions got stuck.”
Jenks believes certain businesses particularly benefit from mentoring, such as family
businesses, where management style and outdated structures can become entrenched through the generations. She also highlights businesses where key responsibility and decision-making has become concentrated among just a very few people (or just one) at the top of the business.
But, as Korn and Jenks agree, it’s hard to think of any SMEs that wouldn’t benefit from a bit of mentoring, in whatever form. After all, if help is on hand, why wouldn’t you take it?
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