How to be a mentor - Brought to you by NatWest

How to be a mentor - Brought to you by NatWest

Thursday, 07 March 2019

What makes a great mentor? What do you need to get right? We speak to experts and SME owners who are mentors to other businesses to find out why they do it and what they get out of it.

Giving something back to the business community is one of the reasons that would-be mentors are often drawn to it, but mentoring can also offer a golden chance for them to grow.


“Becoming a mentor is not just an opportunity for you to share your experience with other budding entrepreneurs – it’s also an opportunity for you to learn,” says leadership development expert Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus and author of The Agile Leader.


“If your mentee is involved in a tech start-up, for example, and you’re not already immersed in this world, then the mentoring relationship can help to keep you in touch with evolving digital technology and agile ways of working.”


Sharing your own insights with your protégé, meanwhile, helps to make them more concrete for you, which increases your ability to learn from your own experience. “It’s a win-win,” says Hayward.


An enriching experience

For Gianluca Bisceglie, founder of intelligent cloud-based financial modelling platform Visyond, being a mentor over the past 10 years has been deeply satisfying. “It’s very enriching because the moment you’re able to add value to someone else’s life or profession it means that you’ve reached a certain point yourself, so it reinforces your self-esteem,” he says. “In a way, it shows that the world needs you.”

Bisceglie’s first foray into mentoring began after he was asked by his old professor at the London Business School to give some advice to students; a variety of mentorships have followed – he currently has a mentee in Piedmont, Italy, with whom he speaks via Skype every Saturday for an hour or two.

He agrees that a good mentor/mentee relationship can be beneficial to both parties. “It makes you think and reflect,” Bisceglie says. “You have to be a problem-solver and strategist to immerse yourself in a sector that is not necessarily your own and try to find ways to improve the situation there. It also gives you the opportunity to keep yourself up to date with the latest thinking – it’s definitely enriching.”

Giving your time for free to a mentee is often “a very practical example of how karma works”, he adds, explaining how he first met one of the investors in his own business while having a coffee with a mentee in a cafe.


Experience has taught him, however, that chemistry needs to exist before he agrees to become an unpaid mentor. “Mentorship, especially unpaid, is a kind of mission; you have to fall in love with what a person is doing. There needs to be empathy there because there is commitment on your side.”


Say no to requests

Entrepreneur Lara Morgan, an investor and co-founder of aromatherapy company Scentered, has a three-decade history of business coaching but only got into mentoring after selling her hotel cosmetics company Pacific Direct in 2008. Morgan says no to requests about 99% of the time, for reasons varying from the geographical difficulties of having meetings to wanting to connect only with those who have “certain qualities”, including a good grasp of basic business finance. “It’s far better to keep saying ‘no’ to someone to see whether they can prove the persistence, resilience and desire to keep pursuing with purpose,” she says. “If someone shows that level of diligence, I’m much more likely to look twice.”


“Becoming a mentor is not just an opportunity for you to share your experience with other budding entrepreneurs – it’s also an opportunity for you to learn”


Dr Simon Hayward, CEO, Cirrus


Her top tip for would-be mentors is to think about whether you can get a “double whammy” of return on your time by identifying some overlap between what you and your mentee do. Also, she says, she likes to find out about the mentee’s end game. “Is it realistic?” she says. “Some people simply do not appreciate the level of work required to succeed, lead and build a growth company.”


Mentoring schemes

It’s worth remembering that not all mentoring is unpaid: government, local authority and private schemes exist to inject know-how into business communities, and these can lead to fee-earning engagements. It’s something that Sarah Brockwell, who runs a boutique PR and marketing agency, has tapped into. At any given time, she mentors eight or nine SME owners who have been accepted onto a scheme run by Essex County Council. While you can be less choosy when being paid to mentor, she says, you’re still there to offer a bespoke approach to whoever you are assisting, and it’s important to ascertain what they want to get out of the relationship.


But what’s it like? Is it an endless series of young entrepreneurs nodding enthusiastically as you share your wisdom? Not at all. “Sometimes they simply won’t like what you’re telling them,” says Brockwell. “I find you do need to be brutally honest in some cases.”


Also, it’s not unusual, she admits, to feel a little like a counsellor to owners whose businesses have taken over their lives. But she is clear – as all mentors should be – about where her obligations end. “You’re not there to run someone else’s business,” she says, “so don’t start taking on tasks that they should be doing themselves.”


Five key skills for would-be mentors

Leadership development expert Dr Hayward shares his thoughts:

  1. A learning mindset: “Be open to learning from your mentee and you’ll get as much from the experience as they do.”
  2. Experience: “Don’t undervalue how much your career experience can genuinely benefit a budding entrepreneur.”
  3. Openness: “Be just as open about your failures as you are about your successes, and encourage your mentee to learn from mistakes, too.”
  4. Challenging: “A good mentor is challenging, as well as supportive.”
  5. Results-focused: “Be clear about what you both want to gain from the mentoring relationship but be flexible about how you achieve your mentoring goals.”


Our Partners:

Sponsored by Specsavers