The best entrepreneurs constantly seek out mentors to guide them
The perception that business mentors are of use only to struggling, beginner businesses could not be further from the truth. Christo Botes, executive director of Business Partners, says in his experience it is the most successful entrepreneurs who seek out mentors and use them to ensure continued success.
Conversely, it is often the struggling business owner who holds the attitude towards a mentor of: “What can this guy teach me? What he is only starting to learn about my business, I have already forgotten”.
Botes can see why a mentor or business advisor could irritate some entrepreneurs. Nothing of what they say or do is rocket science, they are seldom cleverer than the business owner, they often know much less, technically, about the specific industry. They come in and ask relentless, obvious questions, often about areas of the business that the business owner avoids or finds uninteresting.
Business owners often “err on the side of production”, says Botes. They would want to show the mentor the details of the output for the month, for example, but “the mentor says, ‘yes, production is important, but let’s sit back a bit and think strategically. Where do you want to be in five years? Do you have a budget? Is this product still relevant?”
Mentors bring a fresh pair of eyes from outside, they are not caught up and blinded by the technical complexities of the operations, they take what Botes calls a “helicopter view”, and they ask the kind of questions that are applicable to the health of any business.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that the most successful entrepreneurs actively seek out mentors. Botes mentions a previous winner of the Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year award who approached them after the competition and asked them for advice because he liked the kind of probing questions he was asked by Business Partners about his business.
Another example Botes mentions is of a metallurgical engineer, one of the most successful clients that Business Partners ever financed, who religiously brought his management accounts to a Business Partners financier to have a look at and share insights about his business.
The logic of having a mentor becomes even more apparent when you think of them as a kind of independent director. Most larger companies have them on their boards. Their function is almost exactly that of a mentor – fresh, impartial eyes, standing aloof from the operational detail, thinking about the survival and growth strategy of the business and asking probing questions about the health of the business.
Why wait until your business is big before making use of such an advisor? A business needs such impartial guidance even more when it is smaller and more vulnerable. This is why Botes believes every business should ideally have at least one mentor, even if it is just an experienced, trusted associate who can be approached to help with a tricky question from time to time.
Botes believes this goes not only for high-growth businesses, but also for lifestyle businesses that are not necessarily interested in growth. Even if you want your business simply to tick over to give you a middleclass income, you cannot afford to stagnate. “If everyone around you is growing, you will get left behind. You’ve got to reinvent yourself.”
There are no exact rules for structuring a mentorship relationship. On the one side of the spectrum are the more informal mentorship interactions, where start-up businesses get valuable advice from their equipment suppliers, for example, or their accountant or financier.
Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum is a more formal set-up: meeting once a month, perhaps, and keeping the agenda flexible to a certain extent so that the business owner can bring up the issues that he or she is grappling with, and the mentor can also bring up neglected areas for discussion.
On the other side of the spectrum are very specific interventions with strict time limits and outcomes. A relationship starting out informally can of course become more and more structured as time goes on.
Even though mentorship can vary in this way, Botes says there are a few aspects that have to be in place. The mentor must be an experienced business person, the chemistry between the mentor and the business owner must work, and the terms – time, costs and outcomes – must be made as clear as possible.
Most importantly, the business owner must realise that “a mentor is not a magician. He just guides you along, showing you the pitfalls and the corrective action you need to take. In the end, it is you who must create the magic.”