The importance of mentors

The concept of mentorship is often confusing because it can mean different things to different people.
Image: Shutterstock

Some entrepreneurs seem born to the role. Others are clearly a product of their environment. But what unites successful entrepreneurs is the degree to which they are able to grow and adapt personally throughout their journey. Their ability to do so, to mirror and lead the growth of their company on a personal level, is helped immeasurably by the presence of a skilled, experienced, and compatible mentor.

What does mentorship look like?

The concept of mentorship is often confusing because it can mean different things to different people, and because mentors can exist within different spheres of human development. You might have a corporate mentor specifically providing guidance on a career journey within an organisation, or a personal mentor providing generally applicable life skills.

In the entrepreneurial space, and in the way we think about mentorship in relation to the entrepreneurs we help develop, mentors are not trainers. They don’t exist to convey specific, technical information – that’s the job of subject-matter experts. What a mentor does do is use their practical experience to guide entrepreneurs within their specific business context, provide an outside perspective that alerts entrepreneurs to potential or actual problems with their business, and crucially, enforce a sense of accountability for addressing these problems and building stronger businesses.

Mentorship always needs to be contextual, and the mentor will first ask questions in order to understand the specific circumstances that are at play. Once they have what they consider to be an objective, outside-in perspective, the first order of business is to “fix the leaky bucket”. This refers to the process of identifying weaknesses in the business that prevent it from growing, and that the entrepreneur may be blinded to. Every business has these holes, especially in their initial stages, and without fixing them you can pour in energy, time and finance without getting the results you expect.

Once the mentor and entrepreneur are more confident that they have a firm foundation to work from, the focus shifts to setting goals, identifying what actions are needed to achieve those goals, prioritising those actions, and then enforcing accountability for their completion.

Scaling the person alongside the business

Mentors are most helpful to deal with points of inflexion: periods in which a business scales from one phase to another. For example, when a single store becomes several stores, or when a set of stores becomes a franchise – typically points at which you’re either looking for funding or growing your staff base. These inflexion points require a new set of skills, and a new approach, from the business owner. The person in charge must grow and adapt to mirror the change in the organisation.

Launching a start-up takes a certain set of skills. It usually takes a degree of stubbornness, persistence, and hard-headedness. It rewards hustlers, those who are willing to take risks and break rules. But those characteristics can quickly become liabilities once a business looks to scale and then corporatise. Once the business is about retaining staff, customers and finance, then tact, finesse, diplomacy, and the ability to communicate are more important than a gung-ho attitude. At this stage the entrepreneur can either see their business outgrow them, or they can grow and scale alongside their business.

What makes a good mentor?

Mentors have a lot in common with therapists. They should be an individual match for your personality and needs. They should be someone you respect, someone who you would feel comfortable working with, but someone who’s able to create a level of discomfort to encourage catalytic accountability. Some of our participants tell us our mentors are quite scary! You need to be challenged to bring out your best.

Mentorship relies first and foremost on practical experience, and the greater the range and depth of that experience, the more effective a mentor can be. A surgeon can learn a great deal from textbooks and classes, but they are not considered qualified before they’ve been exposed to a range of practical training.

A mentor will therefore be someone who has run businesses, who has gone through the entrepreneurial journey, and who has dealt with failure. Learning from failure is such an important tool in the entrepreneur’s toolbox, but it’s often stigmatised or de-emphasised. Mentors can describe the learnings that result from failure from the other side.

Mentors should be excellent communicators, and should possess exceptional emotional awareness. Entrepreneurship is a high-stakes, emotionally fraught activity. Entrepreneurs are juggling personal growth, businesses and families. Mentors need to be empathetic and understanding in order to engage with people who are in difficult, high-stress positions, and to empower them to attain results.

Mentors also need to have the emotional and intellectual ability to communicate across a variety of world views. Someone with three MBAs and a string of successful companies behind them is in a very different position to someone who, if their start-up doesn’t work out, is going to battle to afford their next meal. Mentors need to be able to embrace different perspectives, and communicate in a way that has authority no matter the audience.

Mentors don’t have to be from the same industry as the people they’re mentoring. The tools you use to run and scale a business are applicable across industries, and an outside perspective can often be more valuable.

Finally, mentors need to be humble enough to listen, but confident enough that they will be listened to. They need to be able to hold entrepreneurs to account and manage sometimes forceful personalities. Entrepreneurs tend to be hustlers, not afraid to take shortcuts. Mentors need to change bad habits and behaviours, and keep entrepreneurs focused on essential tasks which they might consider inconsequential or boring. It’s not a job for pushovers.

How to find a mentor

If you’re a small business owner who has realised, they could benefit from a mentor, consider entrepreneurial communities, organisations and social media networks like LinkedIn, as the first place to look.

Once you’ve found a potential mentor, begin with a conversation. Be explicit about your goals and circumstances and get a sense of their personality and approach. You also need to be clear on accountability, and eventually draw up a contract, particularly if there’s payment involved. You need to decide on your role and the mentor’s role, and on what value creation in the context of the relationship looks like.

The important thing to note is that finding the right mentor is a process. A great mentor won’t necessarily be your friend. But it’s a very personal relationship, nonetheless. The more aware you are of what you need from a mentor, the better the end result.

The value of mentorship

An increasing number of our entrepreneurial and enterprise development programmes have come to rely on mentorship as a critical component of their success. We have seen, time and time again, the difference that an experienced, committed mentor makes if an entrepreneur is likewise committed to the process.

The feedback we receive from the entrepreneurs in our programmes reinforces this. For example: “I had no idea how much was wrong with my business. I thought it was perfect.” Or: “The guidance of my mentor allowed me to think differently.” Both of those examples show the real value of mentorship: dislodging entrepreneurs from old habits, and providing an expert, outside perspective born from practical experience.

Heather Lowe is head of SME Development, FNB.

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