Running a business can be a lonely place – Can having a mentor help?

Employment & Skills | Reports
Sarah Willingham

Being the CEO or MD of a business can be a lonely place, where your decisions decide the future of the company and its staff.

Which is why working with a mentor can help you through the pain as you either scale-up, exit, float or raise funds. Many successful entrepreneurs believe it makes a huge difference and can accelerate growth.

Former Dragons’ Den star and investor Sarah Willingham is one such person.

Sarah comments: “The worst thing an entrepreneur can do is surround themselves with ‘yes people’ or clones of themselves. When you’re the ‘boss’ it’s hard for your employees to have a balanced relationship with you and feel that they can really push you.

“Being a boss can be lonely and we all need someone to listen who won’t judge – a safe environment to speak freely. A mentor is there for you and you alone and will challenge your thinking and decision making without worrying about losing their job. I have always surrounded myself with brilliant people and aimed to be the most stupid person in the room.”

Why should you have a business mentor?

Knowing what to look for in your mentor isn’t so easy, especially if you don’t have any tried and tested business leaders in your network.

Over the past few years, there has been a proliferation of business coaches: experts have come on to the scene and many may have had corporate and business experience. But how many have taken a business from nothing to exit, experienced the round-the clock pressure of going through an exit fundraised or dealt with major staffing issues?

Last year, in an exclusive interview with Business Leader, serial entrepreneur and investor James Phipps talked about this journey in finding a mentor that would work for him.

Despite founding and growing several notable businesses, including computer services firm Excalibur Communications, Phipps was constantly being pestered by ‘experts’ who had never reached the levels of business he had.

One day he ‘snapped’ and in a viral LinkedIn post, he realised how difficult it was for business leaders to have someone they trust, that they can turn to.

He comments: “It showed just how hard it is for business owners or leaders to know where to turn for that magic formula of employee engagement and a growing, profitable business.

“My personal experience of business coaches has been a mixed one. Generally, I have found them to be extremely poor value for money if involved in government funded “general” schemes that are good at textbook relaying but lacking in the understanding of running an actual business or the industry in which you work in.

“They are lifestyle businesses which rely on a few days per month’s work only at a £1,000 day rate to sustain themselves. More than enough willing victims in the marketplace to keep that going for a while.”

However, Phipps later found there were many options out there that suited him and his business, in order to sustain its growth.

He continues: “People like Simon Sinek are inspirational. I would encourage everyone to watch his videos and read his books as a valuable investment of time to any business leader. I have digested their messages and really used them to give me a different perspective.

“But the two largest influences on the success I’ve had have been support groups and non-exec board members. Leadership is a lonely place sometimes, and to find people who truly understand the pressure is hugely valuable.”

Challenge leadership

It is not just the support and influence that a mentor can provide, but that they can challenge the leader of a company with valid points to consider. They are there to help you reach your potential as a boss and a business person.

Senior Lecturer at Salford Business School, Chris Proctor, believes that – in business as in life – it is difficult to learn new things without the right help.

He explains: “In life it is difficult to learn new things without help. The harder the task the more important is the role of a mentor. You can work out some manual tasks by watching a film on YouTube.

Arguably, it is possible to learn yoga online, but not only are you more likely to injure yourself, you will miss the vital social component of a class.

“You cannot complete a PhD without a supervisor, and you can’t learn to drive without an instructor. The mentor isn’t necessary just for their technical expertise, but for their ability to guide you through new problems and thresholds and help you to develop your confidence.

“Establishing a new business can be a rocky and lonely experience. It can be frustrating and aggravating. A mentor can help with strategy, contacts, resources and wisdom.

“They can help bring the vital element of teamwork to what appears a solo pursuit. It isn’t for nothing that teamwork is widely considered by organisations to be the most important attribute in an employee. Developing a relationship with mentors can thus be an essential step for putative business owners.”

That one-to-one mentorship support system can be both a business and psychological safety net. These mentors know the best practices available to deal with issues that affect business.

Tapping into their knowledge bank means that hard decisions are made easier, worrying times can be dealt with, and the weight of leadership can be shared with someone who has been through it all before.

How do I know if they are the right mentor for me?

So, with the good, bad and shocking options available, a business owner might be excused for not knowing who or what type of mentor to bring onboard.

Individual mentors who have grown and sold their stakes in business are available; so are former office executives who have worked through various leadership regimes and different types of business.

There are also specific business mentorship programmes and companies that leaders can reach out to.

One such company is Rockstar Group. Founded in 2007 by former city investment banker Jonathan Pfahl, they have mentors that have experienced everything the life of a business leader can throw at them.

To qualify as a mentor for the company, they must have started, built-up and then sold their business for a minimum price of £4m. However, the average Rockstar Group mentor has sold their business for £18m.

Jonathan explains: “The reason why we need to have mentors who sold their business is because that is what entrepreneurship is all about. If you can create something from nothing, and then have someone who is willing to pay a large sum of money to buy it, there are not that many business lessons you have yet to experience and gone through.

“The mentors have likely gone through at least one recession – this is important as business is very different in good and bad economic times. This creates a collection of very credible sources of information.”

Guidance to become a better leader

International author and founder of two business mentorship programmes Brenda Della Casa believes that mentors can offer guidance around becoming a better leader, as well as the fundamentals of running a business.

Brenda comments: “Being a leader is different from being a manager, entrepreneur or ‘boss’. Leadership is about investing in other human beings and identifying strengths and areas of opportunity. The one-size-fits-all approach to training doesn’t work in a world where so many options are presented to us on an hourly basis. Leadership isn’t about telling people what to do and where to go so much as helping them to build the skills to succeed wherever they go.”

“I think successful men and women want to be surrounded by successful people. Theoretical advice is fine but mentors should be able to show their advice and point of view is effective through their own daily actions. A good mentorship situation is collaborative, productive and efficient. It’s also friendly and based on trust and respect.”

This shows that the role of the ‘mentor’ has evolved, and there can be ones who target specific or overall business issues. There are also different ways in which a leader can seek mentorship advice.

The role of the non-executive director

Sometimes, the option of having an outside and independent mentor might not appeal to some business leaders. However, these are not the only options available to them.

Many scale-up and large businesses employ a non-executive director to help guide them.

James explains: “Non-executive directors have also been incredibly helpful, and I talk to so many SMEs who really see them as something for much larger businesses, with large cost but little gain. My experience was if you can get somebody who is sector specific in experience it is helpful as you can gain insight and get the strategic decisions right.”

Where do I go to find a mentor?

With a selection of choices available to business leaders to help get mentorship advice, it can be hard to make the right selection.

Whether you bring in a non-executive director, apply to a mentorship programme, seek government advice or seek out a sector-specific and niche individual who has faced the world of business and come through it successfully – having a mentor can make a hugely positive difference.

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