O captain, my captain: Mentoring in an age of entrepreneurs

Think Progress Team

Monday 25 August 2014

We often hear that it’s lonely at the top – and an honest entrepreneur would concur. Where do successful business leaders go for support, advice and guidance? In most instances, it’s a mentor. Is it time to consider how a mentor can help you achieve your professional goals?

Entrepreneurs have all the answers and an indefatigable ability to bounce back from missteps. They also come up with the brightest ideas, and those ideas are always right. Right?

Not quite.

Far from being ‘lone wolves’, most entrepreneurs have a solid, reliable support network around them. The most useful member of that network? According to renowned entrepreneur Charles Dunstone, founder of Carphone Warehouse, it’s his mentor.

“Entrepreneurs are great people, but they need all the help they can get,” says Dunstone. “First among these is a mentor […] to provide advice, contacts and moral support. When I started Carphone Warehouse, I was lucky enough to receive excellent mentoring, and it made a huge difference.”1

Lonely at the top

Why do these business leaders need a mentor? Ross Nichols, a business mentor, consultant and career coach who operates his own Salisbury-based business, Business Mentoring Services, says that owning a business and being a senior leader in an SME can be a lonely and stressful experience.

“Some business clients tell me that being mentored or coached is their ‘sanctuary’ and the only time they get to think creatively about their business,” says Nichols.

Mentoring and coaching are often bundled in together, yet there are subtle differences between the two. Nichols refers people to two simple definitions:

1. “Coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance.”

2. “Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen and a push in the right direction.”

Mentoring in the spotlight

Mentors are typically used to provide a second opinion, explore solutions, test ideas and identify strategies. They help fill in knowledge gaps and provide feedback. They can also be a valuable component in the development of leadership skills.

“The value of a mentor is not to offer themselves as a replicable role model, but to be a sounding board for the mentee’s navigation of their own career and success, which may include helping them with their contacts and networks,” says Penny de Valk, managing director of Penna Talent Practice.

“A mentor is worth his or her weight in gold. They can be the difference between an idea’s success and failure.”

All roles should be able to gain value from mentoring, but de Valk stresses that having a clear objective and having both parties clear on those objectives is critical to success.

“Mentoring is not about copying someone else’s success, but learning from those [who have been successful in their careers] about the attributes they worked at personally. It’s about the decisions they made and the strengths and weaknesses in themselves they needed to address and learnt from along the way.”

Mentors themselves will usually have advanced management skills and be experienced leaders and line managers – they know how to do things, how to solve problems and how to get on with people.

Making mentoring work

How can you engage with a mentor? Nichols suggests having a ‘chemistry’ session before starting the mentoring or coaching relationship. This way you can check that both you and the mentor feel comfortable working with each other. “Always trust your gut!” he says.

The next step is to establish the desired outcomes. These might include the desire to develop technical expertise or networking skills, or simply a conversation around career ambitions.

There is no standard number of sessions as each client is different. However, Nichols has noticed that most clients begin to feel the difference typically after three sessions, and after six may feel confident enough to reduce the frequency.

Turning ideas into gold

Still questioning whether mentoring is right for you? Here’s a tip from Mike Southon, author of The Beermat Entrepreneur4:

“A mentor is worth his or her weight in gold. They can be the difference between an idea’s success and failure.”

And if ideas are the DNA of a successful business, perhaps it’s time to consider how a mentor can help turn your bright sparks into tangible business outcomes.

Sources: 

1. Charles Dunstone quoted in Southon, Mike, (2005) The Beermat Entrepreneur, Second Edition, Pearson Education, p. vii.

2. Whitmore, John, (2011) Coaching for Performance, Fourth Edition, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, p10.

3. John Cosby quoted in Taylor, Leon, (2010) Mentor, Soap Box Books, p. 20.

4. Southon, Mike, (2005) The Beermat Entrepreneur, Second Edition, Pearson Education, p. 17.