We often need a helping hand when facing the challenges of life. Cast your mind back to your school days. Remember your favourite teacher? The one who made learning fun, listened to your opinions, guided you through what was required to understand a subject and ultimately succeed. (Thank you Mr Fuller, I was a lost cause until you helped me!)
Now, as adults, we face different challenges but still need that same kind of person in our business life. The majority of owner-managed businesses are built on personal knowledge and although it may have brought a degree of success, how much more could be achieved with some one-on-one ‘tutoring’ and guidance from someone with complimentary skills and knowledge?
So, how do you go about finding the right person to help grow your business?
Mentors, Business Coaches or Business Consultants ?
In the way that ‘entrepreneur’ seems to have replaced ‘business owner’ as a description; ‘Mentor’ is now the buzz word of the moment. Don’t confuse mentors with coaches or consultants.
Business Coaches tend to help you see the big picture but don’t necessarily offer the solutions. Many business coaches don’t have any coaching qualifications but have expertise in a specific area, although not always in business. There are some great business coaches in the UK but beware of those simply offering motivational or ideological guidance. (Confusingly many of the business advisors at the Enterprise Agencies refer to themselves as business coaches yet offer far more than motivational support.) Coaches mainly enable you to ask the right questions then encourage you to find your own solutions. If you do find a coach that interests you, get several references from people you trust or establish their business experience and history first.
Business Consultants tend to be more hands on than a coach. They usually come from a clear business background and have specialist skill sets eg: export strategies, logistical expertise, sales and marketing or finance. A good business consultant should also have a good ‘all-round’ understanding of business processes and strategy. When considering a consultant it is advisable to ask about experience in your sector, industry or type of business. This is not always essential however, they are more likely to offer valuable insights on competitors, potential USP’s and help you develop a clearer understanding of what works and does not work in your industry.
Business Mentors are harder to define and are almost a hybrid of a business consultant, coach and business partner. A good mentor offers personal and professional development whilst providing assistance in other skill areas by sharing expertise and knowledge. A good mentor will provide some of the strategic and analytical expertise that a business consultant offers but will help to facilitate a broader understanding of growing the business and yourself. Ideally you should also look for a mentor who has experience in your sector.
MentorsMe – In July 2011 the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) in conjunction with the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) launched Mentorsme.co.uk to help UK companies find mentoring organisations and individuals. The Government’s aim was to have a network of 26,000 mentors by September 2012. A bold initiative with mixed success.
Now in 2014 Mentorsme provides basic information on 115 organisations offering both free and paid-for mentoring across the UK and apparently represents a national network of 27,000 mentors. This is obviously a great start however we at YBM had some doubts on these figures. We conducted test searches on their website (using ‘mentors for a growing company’) in each UK region. The results tended to only highlight one or two providers for each region and links only highlighted paid-for services. There was no evidence that there is even 1,000 mentors involved (nevermind 20,000) and contary to Government statements on mentoring networks; none were free.
IoEE – More transparent is The Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs which is a not-for-profit company run by SFEDI who originally ran the qualification process for the GetMentoring campaign. The transparency again is not about the numbers of mentors available but the fact that their mentors must have at least a Level 2 qualification in enterprise support. You need to sign–up as a member to access the service and pay £50 per annum to be an Associate Member, although they are currently offering Affiliate Membership which is free for the first 12 months.
National Enterprise Network – Previously the Federation for Enterprise Agencies, NEN represent 72 of the UK’s non-for-profit enterprise agencies. Not to be confused with LEPs these are limited companies, often financed by local partnerships of councils, chambers of commerce and local business. They provide help and support for small and growing businesses plus start-ups and most have been locally established for many years. The vast majority employ permanent enterprise coaches/advisors as well as offer training, events and in some cases access to finance. Although few of the agencies use the phrase ‘mentors’ they offer business advice services that provide the same function and are quite often free for a certain period of time. Speaking with their Chief Executive recently they have a target to offer 1,000 free mentors by 2018.
Nesta – the independent charity for innovation and investment have developed the Creative Business Mentor Network which provides access to a large number of commercially successful, experienced business mentors who help creative companies build business success in a short time. They mainly help established creative UK companies who have a minimum of three years trading and a minimum turnover of £1m. Not for everyone but it is not just start-ups or sole traders who need mentors.
The Prince’s Trust – If you are between the ages of 18-30 then one of the longest standing mentoring schemes (30 years) is obviously The Prince’s Trust. Enrolement for their support has strict guidelines but each mentor has committed to a minimum of four to six hours per month for two years and there are no costs attached. This is one of the truelly alteuristic schemes available.
Virgin StartUp – One of the newer schemes comes from Virgin StartUp who specialize in start-up finance but crucially have a mentorship network to provide support and advice to those who have registered. We have not found many details on this so far as it is a new service but in the words of Sir Richard “Whenever I am asked what is the missing link between a promising businessperson and a successful one, mentoring comes to mind. If you are looking to make your way in business, try to find a mentor.”
Finally, The Association of Business Mentors is an independent, not-for-profit organisation who aims to inspire and champion excellence in business mentoring. Whilst aiming to champion standards in the business mentoring profession the interesting point is that they also aim to “Unite the mentoring industry by promoting collaboration and build a network of strategic alliances and relationships”. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction as the marketplace is currently very fragmented. As a fledgling organisation there are some issues which hopefully they will iron out as the website is mainly geared towards the mentors rather than the people who would need their services although they have recently upgraded their mentor search facility with a basic geographic search and a handful of industry sector queeries. Possibly one organisation to keep an eye on but currently appears to be more of a trade association format rather than trying to serve small business owners.
Do You Need A Mentor?
Just about every business at some point in it’s development cycle needs external advice. If major corporates employ consultants, strategists and team development companies then the answer for small business owners has to be “Yes”. The dividing line between a consultant and a mentor seems to be about emotion. Someone who knows what is best for your business but cares about you and your future, rather than just taking a fee and walking away.
Part of the issue at the moment is that there is a lot of pre-election hype about mentors offering their services for free. To some extent this is true as there are a handful of alteuristic individuals who will do this however, the majority will give a free consultation but if you need their services over a long period of time you will need to pay. Finding the right person who respects your business and who you respect could make the difference between growth and stagnation.
Mentors … the new description of business consultants with a heart ?