Confidence is a precious thing in business. Having the confidence to succeed, the belief in yourself that your ideas will work and the drive to turn those ideas into reality are key traits of the high-achieving entrepreneur.
But how confident can someone be when they confront new strategies for growth or realise that they are going to have to try something different to help them succeed in their role? Where can they turn to for advice and guidance?
For me this is where a business mentor can really make a difference. There has been a lot of talk about mentoring over the past couple of years and Sage has done some research recently which showed that, while almost everyone thinks business mentoring delivers benefits, not that many people are actually going out and using a mentor.
Mid-market businesses across Europe are failing to take advantage of business mentors, despite the vast majority recognising that external advice would help their organisation succeed, Sage found in a survey recently.
While 93% of firms agreed that business mentoring was helpful or useful to their organisation, on average just a third (33%) actually made use of a business mentor, the research showed. For the poll 1,825 decision-makers in mid-market businesses were interviewed in 17 countries.
One of the problems is that there is still some confusion as to what a mentor is or does. I think the best basic definition is along these lines: Mentoring is a professional relationship between a more experienced person (the mentor) and a less experienced person (the mentee) where the mentor helps the mentee to develop knowledge and skills that improve their professional expertise.
I would further say that the key fact in business mentoring, as opposed to business coaching, is that the mentor has the specific business experience that is relevant for the mentee’s situation. A business coach has a wider, less specific set of skills and methodologies for helping a mentee.
So what are the benefits of mentoring? The most important one is that a mentor brings a degree of objectivity to the business decision-making process that may not exist within the business.
Objectivity is often undervalued, especially by owner/founders of businesses. When people set up in business, they bring passion and creativity and a particular sense of purpose. But that focus can get too narrow, especially as the business grows and looks to expand. In bigger organisations that ability to look from the outside – often from the customer’s point of view – is especially valuable. A mentor can bring that bigger picture view and help surface problems and solutions that would have been overlooked otherwise.
This outside-in view can have a significant impact over business success. According to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills in the UK nine out of ten businesses who had worked with a mentor said it had a positive impact on their business. It also found that nearly twice as many mentored businesses reported an increase in turnover compared to unmentored businesses.
With this strong evidence of the benefits, why the hesitation? I think that one of the most significant block for small and medium business owners using a mentor is, simply put, time. But the best mentors save businesses time, effort and money by helping them to focus on what works using the benefit of their experience.
What should you be looking for in a mentor? Here are some of the top characteristics:
- A mentor who has experienced both success and failure. They will have more to share.
- Experience in your sector or industry. This means the advice will be targeted and relevant.
- Someone who you can get along with. You need to find a mentor who aligns with your values, otherwise you will end up clashing.
- Someone with whom you can build a long-term relationship. The best mentor/mentee relationships can be productive for years.
- Someone who is honest and direct. You don’t need a cheerleader, you need someone who will give you straight advice.
I think that businesses that do not have access to, or choose not to make use of business mentoring are at a disadvantage. In our information rich age it can be difficult to know if you are doing the right thing. Mentors can play a big role in helping businesses to navigate the sea of advice on offer.
Finally, a word about seeking advice and support from outside the business in general. Medium-sized businesses should not be afraid to seek outside help from experts. There are a lot of providers that can help externally with business problems such as HR or marketing or growth strategies. Many businesses do not have the in-house expertise and when time is tight and the objectives clear, then seeking consultancy from agencies or other bodies can really deliver. At the same time, using outside consultants can help train your own staff so they can replicate the skills themselves and drive them through the organisation. I am not suggesting that this should be a huge investment but often mid-market companies overlook the advantages of outside agency help, believing wrongly that this is something that only big corporates can afford.