Learning from an experienced business mentor can be invaluable for anyone setting up their own company. Who better than someone who has seen it all before firsthand to help with the endless juggling of priorities, the search for capital, the pursuit of sales and supplies and the huge responsibility of keeping the show on the road – and all while putting on your ‘gameface’ for customers and staff?
But for founders or employees in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and for sole traders, finding a mentor can be hard. Usually it’s necessary to look outside for support. But where? While many small entrepreneurs are forced to turn to paid-for mentoring or coaching services, there are also a host of free services available in the UK, too.
Finding your mentor
A good starting point are the 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) across England. These are voluntary partnerships between local authorities and local private sector businesses that offer support and advice to start-ups, scale-ups and growing businesses. They have created 5,060 mentoring or business to business relationships to date.
Roger Estrada is founder of Warwick-based R53 Engineering, which employs seven people and specialises motorsport and defence engineering with clients such as McLaren, the Ministry of Defence and Bentley. He turned to the Coventry and Warwickshire LEP for support in 2017 when he needed help expanding his business.
With help from Jaymie Thakordas, a business mentor at the organisation’s Growth Hub, R53 was able to move to a larger facility with an R&D room and vehicle prototype area.
“She was there every step of the way and we could not have done this without the guidance that Jamie and the Growth Hub offered,” he says.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) runs free networking events around the country as part of the FSB Connect Networking programme. Business owners can meet and learn from like-minded entrepreneurs and don’t need to be paying members of the FSB to attend.
In London, the Business Growth Programme run by London & Partners, the Mayor’s promotional agency, offers entrepreneurs one-to-one mentoring from seasoned executives, including some from blue chip companies such as IBM and GlaxoSmithKline. Since 2011, more than 1,200 companies have benefited.
Also in London, the Central Research Laboratory (CRL), a hardware accelerator, runs free workshops and offers one-to-one mentoring sessions. These are funded in part by the European Regional Development Fund.
Alice Johnson, Community & Coworking Lead at CRL, says that life can be very difficult for hardware startups because making prototypes and getting the first batch of products to launch can require a lot of organisational support. Input from someone who has been through a similarly complex process, can do a lot to boost confidence and solve real problems.
“Our mentors come from established firms such as the consultancy PWC and Mathys & Squire, an intellectual property law firm. We also have mentors from industry – people who have ‘been there and done that’,” she says.
Finding the right mentor is only the start. Jo Miller, chief executive of Be Leaderly, an American leadership consultancy, says that for mentees to get the maximum benefit from the relationship, they need to ask the right questions and seek very granular information. An example might be “I tried to delegate a task and it did not go well. Can we work through what to do differently next time?”
But often a mentor’s most valuable contribution can be to simply help their mentee gain better self-awareness. Ms Miller suggests that mentees do not shy away from questions such as, “How am I viewed? What’s my personal brand in our organization?” Understanding the answer to this can be crucial – research from Korn-Ferry, the global leadership consultancy, suggests that a company’s financial performance is related to the level of self-awareness of its leadership team.
Not all mentoring has to be set up on a formal basis, though; drawing advice informally from peers or even friends outside the business often works best. This is what Nafisa Bakkar – founder of the fashion retailer and magazine Amaliah, which gives a voice to Muslim women – discusses in our mentorship video with Alex Depledge, founder of hassle.com, which she later sold for £27 million.
There’s no such thing as a quick fix
At Starling, we know that finding the right mentor and peer support can be hard. That’s one reason why we launched our Community, an online forum where our business and personal banking customers can exchange ideas with their peers.
But mentoring cannot on its own be a ‘cure-all’ or ‘quick fix’. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) has warned that unstructured or informal mentoring in particular can be perceived as a form of patronage, or as giving the mentee an unfair advantage. If the mentors are all from a similar background, unconscious (and conscious) institutional biases can be perpetuated. It’s why mentorship programmes serving women and minority ethnic groups are sometimes seen as necessary.
The CMI suggests that mentors should ideally be trained and stresses that mentees not be the only ones to benefit. If all is going well, the mentor gets a chance to gain (additional) experience of motivating and advising others, as well as new subject knowledge.
With help from CRL, Eugene Nadyrshin, founder of Plexus VR, a startup developing virtual reality gloves for use in computer gaming, was mentored by Jane Leah, an experienced public relations executive.
“She helped us develop the comms around the launch of our product. We were four engineers and this was not something we knew about. Perhaps the most important lesson from her was to keep things simple and to focus our message on the core qualities of our product, rather than go for something crazy with lots of teasers on social media,” he says.
Leah also benefited from the knowledge of VR that she gained from Plexus to launch The Reality Club, an online platform for writers, developers, researchers and marketeers working on immersive technologies.
Reverse mentoring – and knowing when to leave
Linklaters, one of the country’s so-called “magic circle” law firms, is even piloting a ‘reverse mentoring’ scheme, where junior lawyers share their personal experience and insights with a more senior mentee. The aim, according to Fiona Hobbs, global diversity and inclusion partner at Linklaters, is to expose the firm’s management to “differences in cultures, values, motivations and skills”.
“We know that if you want to learn something, you need to explore new ideas and new ways of working. Reverse mentoring is just one way we can do that. We hope that it will be a two-way street which will hopefully add invaluable perspective for both sides of the relationship,” Hobbs says.
Mentoring doesn’t always work if there is no chemistry between mentor and mentee or if there is no real engagement. And even the best mentor/mentee relationships can run out of steam eventually. Breaking up with your mentor can be hard to do, but the Harvard Business Review, recommends a swift, clean split. Dragging out an unproductive relationship is a waste of everybody’s time. The trick, it says, is to make sure the breakup is amicable. After all, nobody can ever be sure who they will need help from in the future.