Michael Best explains how a mentor can help turn a business around and what to expect from them
It’s the end of the day. Everyone has gone home. Everyone except the small business owner. This person is sitting, elbows on a desk, forehead cupped in hands, eyes closed. We see an exhausted person. We see a frustrated person. Perhaps this person is worried about survival, or how to take the business to the next level. In either case, it’s a person badly in need of inspiration and someone to talk to – someone who’s seen it all before, someone with a few ideas. It’s a common sight. What’s also all too common is that many small businesses don’t have the budget for directors, consultants and coaches. But the owners of these businesses still need advice, guidance and encouragement. One source is mentorship. And one attractive feature of mentorship is that it’s budget friendly.
Rooted in ancient history
In the world of small business, ‘mentor’ describes an experienced and knowledgeable business person willing to share their experience and expertise with a less experienced and less knowledgeable business person, the mentee. Mentorship is a potentially business- saving concept. It’s about sharing knowledge informally – and mentoring is such an instinctive human behaviour that it’s fair to assume it’s as old as humankind. Perhaps it’s deeply embedded in our DNA. To small business owners, mentorship is a valuable and generously-bestowed resource. And this time-honoured, knowledge-sharing ritual is expressed in small business through three essential qualities.
A mentor’s three essential qualities
The first two of three essential qualities a small business mentor must have are obvious knowledge and experience. They’re so obvious we don’t need to explore them here. The third is not so obvious, but it’s certainly essential. The third quality stems from a presumption that small business mentoring is free of charge – a presumption I wholeheartedly endorse. Those who are experienced must share knowledge with those who are inexperienced. This is how civilisation advances. If the sharing can be done without charge, so much the better. I am, of course, referring to one-on-one, informal knowledge sharing, not to institutionalised mass education such as colleges and universities. I’m also not referring to directors, consultants and coaches who share knowledge as a full-time profession. I’m referring to no- charge, small business mentoring, which is not a profession but a commitment. It’s a commitment that necessitates the third essential quality of a mentor: generosity.
Mentorship is an exercise in altruism, and altruism isn’t possible without generosity. Obviously you’ll pick your mentor for their perceived knowledge and experience, but if genuine, heartfelt generosity isn’t an integral part of the potential mentor’s personality, I doubt that the mentoring process will be truly fulfilling and productive.
Imagine sitting down with your mentor for a scheduled monthly discussion. If this person gives you the slightest impression that you’re an imposition, or displays a let’s-get-on-with-it-you’re-getting-this-for-free-you-know attitude, it’s bound to taint the relationship. It’s bound to inhibit your participation.
But selecting a mentor isn’t as onerous as it might seem. You’re not likely to pick a mentor by stabbing at a business directory with a pin. A potential mentor is likely to be (a) someone you know personally, (b) someone to whom you’ve been referred, or (c) someone to whom you’re introduced by a mutual acquaintance.
You probably already know that the potential mentor has the knowledge and experience you’d like to tap into. And this person likely has a reputation as an involved and caring mentor. But if not, I’d venture that it won’t take you long to establish this. If you discover that your mentor isn’t genuinely generous with their knowledge, experience and time, terminate the relationship and find another.
The mentor-mentee relationship
Different mentors will adopt different approaches. A mentor with the appropriate knowledge and experience will quickly assess your business and adapt their mentoring emphasis accordingly. Whatever the emphasis in a particular small business mentoring situation may be, in general, the mentor’s role is to listen and offer options – a smorgasbord from which the mentee is free to pick and choose. Small business mentoring works best when the mentor-mentee relationship is power-free. Your mentor shouldn’t portray an authoritative attitude, regardless of status. Displays of power have no place in the small business mentoring arena. Your mentor should be a facilitator, a teacher who allows you to discover your own direction. Hence the smorgasbord concept – the mentor lays it out and the mentee picks and chooses.
Here’s how you can expect a mentor- mentee relationship to unfold: The mentee approaches (in writing, by phone or in person) with a brief explanation of why they are seeking a mentor. Usually, this person is motivated to find a mentor by a single, over- arching ‘how’ challenge: “How do I survive?” “How do I grow?” “How do I restructure?” The mentor may have an initial discussion with the mentee to better understand the nature and circumstances of their business and to explain how much and what to expect of the mentor. This is the approach I favour. I suppose you could consider this to be an interview, though it’s not nearly as intense as an interview for a job or a consulting assignment because the potential relationship isn’t going to be nearly as comprehensive as either of those.
Typically, the mentee drives the relationship – that is, the mentee poses questions and the mentor responds. A mentor should make this clear by pointing out that their role is not to dictate how to run the business. Mentoring is not a hand- holding exercise. If the mentee needs hand-holding rather than occasional, suggested course corrections, they probably aren’t ready for the journey. And while a mentor should typically be passive and reactive, if the mentee appears to be taking a route unlikely to lead to the desired destination, it’s incumbent upon the mentor to be more proactive. But even then, it’s the mentee’s prerogative to alter course or not.
A peek behind the scenes
When you arrange to meet with your mentor once or twice a month for an hour or two, this is not the limit of his or her contribution. What you’re not seeing is that every hour spent with you is matched by as much as another hour spent thinking about your situation, crunching numbers, bouncing an idea for you off a colleague or two, arranging introductions, digging up helpful reference material, noting questions to challenge you with, and even lying awake at night mulling over the ins and outs of an issue you may have raised. Why would your mentor do this? Because mentors are also entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs are stimulated by business challenges. Overcoming challenges gives them a buzz. Contributing to a mentee’s success also gives them a buzz. Perhaps since the dawn of humankind, mentorship has always been about the buzz.
The mentor should commit to a schedule of regular discussions (usually monthly). Hour-long discussions should be enough, but don’t be surprised if they become two-hour or longer discussions when the topic is particularly interesting. After-hours exchanges tend to be more relaxed and productive. Few things are as annoying as having to hurry a stimulating discussion or end it to deal with a typical business-day interruption. The mentor should also be available for the occasional unscheduled meeting about urgent matters that cannot wait for the next scheduled discussion.
If I agree to serve as a mentor, I confirm it by email. In the email, I also reiterate the important points mentioned during the initial meeting (especially those that pertain to what’s expected of me) and clarify that our mentor-mentee relationship may be ended at any time by either party. While I prefer face-to-face discussions, I’m not averse to Facetime or Skype. In fact, I’ve had productive Facetime discussions with small business owners as far afield as Australia. There’s no reason why 14,000 kilometres of ocean should get in the way of a productive business discussion.
How I was semi-mentored
I didn’t have a formal mentoring arrangement when I launched my small business, partly because I was under the impression that, as a chartered accountant, I knew all there was to know about business. I was wrong, of course. And I sorely regret it now. I did, however, have access to advice on an informal, occasional-discussion basis from a retired drilling company owner. He’d been very successful during the boom years in the Alberta oil patch. He gave me various useful snippets of advice and helped me realise that I had to terminate my ill-considered partnership before it was even a year old. And he actually offered to facilitate it with a short-term loan.
Not an either/or solution
By no means am I implying that a mentor is the sole, or even the best, solution to a small business owner’s search for advice, guidance, shared experience and encouragement. Directors, consultants and coaches can all be good resources. And please understand that none of these need be standalone, either/or solutions (they could be, but they don’t have to be). The solution could be a combination of these resources. It all depends on what’s appropriate and feasible for your small business. The important takeaway is that there are solutions.
This is an edited excerpt from Characters Who Can Make Or Break Your Small Business by Michael Best. Through 39 characters, Michael covers all aspects most small business owners can expect to encounter in the life of a business from inception to disposition. It can be read linearly or used a reference book to be consulted when confronted with a particular issue. Real life examples and anecdotes presented conversationally means it’s not your average, boring business book. It is available from: