Mentoring – The hidden asset in any successful business

Adrian Wenn, volunteer mentor and treasurer at the Kent Foundation, looks at the benefits of working with a mentor and outlines some of the considerations a prospective mentee should take to help them find the perfect match for them and their business.

What do Steve Jobs and Sir Richard Branson have in common, other than their obvious business success? Well, both sought the guidance of mentors throughout their careers. While it may be easier to understand in the case of Branson, the Apple founder was famously single-minded, but he was not averse to seeking a little help, advice and support from time to time. No matter whom you are, where you’ve come from, or what you have achieved, a good mentor is an invaluable asset in business.

The young Branson was lucky enough to be introduced to a family friend, who was an accountant. The two would spend one evening a week discussing the basics of bookkeeping. Branson said, ‘it was hugely helpful, and he displayed amazing patience with my repeated requests of, ‘Erm, can you run that one by me just one more time, please.’

The other key individual to guide Branson was Sir Freddie Laker who had previously launched a low-cost Atlantic airline. Laker ultimately failed under the weight of competition and pricing tactics of the numerous state-run airlines that existed at the time. This experience helped Branson to launch Virgin Airlines and succeed against the might of the likes of British Airways.

Steve Jobs equivalent of Laker was former Intel manager Mike Markkula. His investment of $80,000 in equity and $170,000 as a loan earned Markkula a one-third share in Apple, but it was his role as what Jobs called the ‘adult supervisor’ that was by far and away his greatest contribution to keeping the unruly Apple youngsters on track.

The American author and businessman Zig Ziglar captured the essence of mentoring when he said, ’A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.’

While there are an enormous number of business advice books and websites to learn from, a mentor can provide that much-needed context in enabling a business owner to succeed. Some of the key benefits of a mentor are:

Advice

Obtaining advice from an experienced individual can make a big difference when it comes to navigating the business world. It can be particularly important to receive guidance from someone who knows you and your business but has no direct connection or vested interest. A dispassionate view is important when making key decisions.

Perspective

Sometimes business owners need to step back to see the big picture and mentors can help with providing this vital perspective.

Networking

Mentors have valuable business connections which have usually developed into trusting relationships over many years. A mentee can gain from both access to these networks but also to have the mentors endorsement when introductions are made.

Confidence and encouragement

Sometimes all it takes to make important business decisions is confidence. Mentors are perfectly positioned to provide guidance and reinforce the business skills their mentees have, making them more self-assured in all of their business dealings.

Sounding board

Running a business can be a lonely existence, and a mentor acts as a sounding board, listening to issues that have arisen and helping the mentee talk through potential solutions. Business owners sometimes just need to vent to someone they trust. They cannot vent to their partners, employees or customers without causing additional problems within the business. However, once they have ‘let off steam’ to a mentor, they can often start the process of working with the mentor to solve the cause of their frustration.

Challenge

A good mentor should offer constructive challenge and not merely agree with everything their mentee suggests. This ensures that all aspects of a plan have been considered and that the mentee is fully engaged and committed to their business and plans. It also ensures that vital element of realism. In the words of Steve Jobs, ’My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better’.

So what should a mentee consider when thinking about approaching a potential mentor? Three core requirements need to be met for a quality long-term relationship to be established.

Experience. Find someone that has significantly more experience than you. Experience takes time. It takes failure, overcoming roadblocks, and overstepping hurdles before reaching success. Immediate business success may not always translate into a strong mentor.

Values. Make sure your values are similar. It’s incredibly challenging to open up to someone who shares different values than you. When meeting a potential mentor, the following questions are useful. Do they value hard work and commitment? Do they talk in a positive way? Are they condescending? Can they listen? The mentee should think about what is important to them and make sure their mentor shares their core values.

Trust. If you cannot trust someone, you cannot learn from them. Trust is not only about being honest. It is about being able to rely on the mentor to be real, to be present, and to be engaged in the mentees story.

A quick search online will show the vast range of organisations and individuals offering to provide mentoring services. Some initial research by the mentee will be required to assess the credentials of these parties. While we are blessed with many people, who are willing to freely offer their time it is always best to approach any new relationship with a healthy level of scrutiny and scepticism.

Many industry and professional bodies provide valuable access to a range of mentors. In Kent, young business owners have the added support of The Kent Foundation, a charity which was established in 1985 and has over 100 fully trained volunteer business mentors. The support ranges from assisting start ups to more established businesses. The mentoring is complemented by a range of workshops, networking events and intensive roundtable discussions involving mentees and mentors.

While the background and experience of business mentors are varied, the vast majority are motivated by their wish to support like-minded business owners to achieve their full potential. As Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

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