Hire a mentor and share the care of being a mini-tycoon

by Widget Finn

Reprinted from Financial Mail on Sunday, November 21 1999

Running a growing firm can be a lonely business. One of the toughest aspects of setting up a company is the feeling that there is no one to turn to for help and advice.

Many budding entrepreneurs find that the answer is a mentor.

Mentoring, formal or informal, is common in larger companies where younger employees form a relationship with a more senior figure who offers guidance and career advice.

The concept is catching on in growing firms, where business experts believe it can make a big difference to an owner-manager's peace of mind.

A good mentor should be able to offer advice on business processes and direct entrepreneurs to experts in key fields such as tax planning, design or marketing.

It can prove an invaluable service for those who start out with little commercial experience. But perhaps most importantly, a mentor will be a friendly, impartial listener with no axe to grind.

Jacqueline de Baer is chief executive of London-based De Baer Corporate Clothing, which she founded in 1984 and now has sales of 9 million.

In the past two years, she has seen her profits rise by 500%, a success she credits largely to her mentor.

De Baer found her mentor through the Academy for Chief Executives, a forum that provides mentoring and development for its members through one-to-one sessions and peer-group support.

She wanted a mentor who had successfully developed a small business and turned down the first offer in favour of Phillip Gee, founder of the healthfood chain Holland & Barrett.

She says: 'A mentor is totally dispassionate and can be the catalyst for making tough decisions. He or she doesn't necessarily know the answer, but will help you work your way towards it'.

Mentors can be found through accountancy firms or consultancies. Costs vary, with accountants sometimes offering free mentoring until a company can afford to pay, while commercial schemes charge up to 10,000 a year.

Leading accountant Arthur Andersen recently launched the CoNect initiative, acting as a broker to bring together senior members in large companies as mentors to young organisations.

The programme is based in eastern England but is expected to go nationwide later.

The government also plans to launch a Business Volunteer Mentors' Association in April and is seeking 1,000 volunteers with business experience.

Nationwide advice network Business Links offers mentoring for small businesses with 10 or fewer staff. It also offers the services of a personal business adviser for firms with fewer than 200 staff. The extent and cost of the service varies locally.

Opinions differ on whether a mentor should have direct experience of a growing firm. While owner-managers such as De Baer set a premium on having a mentor who has worked in a growing company, Jane Darlington at Arthur Andersen believes that big company experience is vital.

She says: 'A small firm may want to expand into global markets but lacks the expertise. We can find a mentor who has international experience'.

To be effective, the entrepreneur must get on well with the mentor and be prepared to run the relationship within firm boundaries. It is worth interviewing several potential mentors before settling on one.

Entrepreneurs must be prepared to commit to regular sessions over an extended period.

Steve Schneider, managing director of the mentoring consultancy CPS, meets a client for 20 sessions, each lasting 90 minutes over a 52 week cycle. He says that he can demonstrate progress that soon adds value to the business.

But what is in it for the mentor? In the case of some of the consultancies charging high fees, the answer is obvious. And accountancy firms admit that they have a commercial motive in nurturing future potential clients.

But there is an element of altruism as well.

Colin Beale, senior partner in accountant Harrison Beale, spends much of his time mentoring though his local Business Links scheme.

Unlike many accountants, he has hands-on experience of business. A millionaire at 24 and broke at 25, he owns a nursery chain and other enterprises.

'I get a tremendous kick out of it', he says. 'I love seeing someone succeed'.

Mentoring do's and don'ts:

  • Do ensure that the personal chemistry is right before you start
  • Do establish a structure to the relationship
  • Do be committed to the relationship
  • Do insist on a trial period
  • Don't expect instant results
  • Don't become dependent on your mentor