It’s good to talk

Whether it’s an informal chat or structured advice, an increasing number of business owners and CEOs are gaining a commercial edge from merely talking to someone.

Mentoring is being with someone who has been through the same experience you have. But finding a good mentor is like trying to find gold – you can have a great map but often the best thing to do is to get a shovel and dig,’ says René Carayol. In his past roles as IT director at magazine publishing company IPC (he was the first IT director in the history of the company to be promoted to the board), and then managing director of its web arm, IPC Electric, Carayol owes much of his success and knowledge to his mentor.

‘No IT director had ever been on the IPC board before. It was a source of frustration for me that I couldn’t turn to someone who I aspired to be,’ he recalls. For Carayol, there was no better way of finding a mentor than taking the plunge and approaching the person who he instinctively felt was best placed to help.

After some research, he called Donald Harris, IT director and board executive at Tesco. ‘We shared a vision for the industry, so, once a month, I sent a car round to pick him up and booked a restaurant, in return for two hours of his time. He gave me some great advice and was my mentor for five years,’ affirms Carayol.

Listen and learn

Carayol’s experience is further proof that ‘mentoring’ is becoming less of a buzzword and more of a technique being used with great success by an increasing number of business leaders.

According to the latest Inner City 100 report, the index of the fastest-growing inner-city companies, mentoring has been key to widespread success, with more than 25 per cent of this thriving elite involved in mentoring schemes.

The role these mentors play, at least initially, is that of a very good listener. They are people who lend a sympathetic ear to business dilemmas and offer sound advice, without (and this is the important bit) imposing their opinions or being swayed by egos in the boardroom or elsewhere.

Impartial advice

For Suzanna Simpson, who founded Limelight Public Relations just over two years ago, such impartial advice has been invaluable to the growth of her business. She was forced to re-mortgage her home when her bank refused to give her an overdraft, and although she secured three clients before launching, they all dropped out on the first day of business for reasons beyond her control.

But since then, the business has grown and she now works with six staff. Her bid to become more successful has led her to rely on a mentor to guide her through the rapid growth of her company.

‘I learnt a lot on the job, but about six months ago I attended The Supper Club, founded by businessman Duncan Cheatle. It enables budding entrepreneurs to share experiences and provide advice in an informal setting,’ she comments.

Now Simpson has a one-to-one mentor relationship with Cheatle. ‘His advice has benefited me enormously, from moving offices to letting go of clients that are not the right fit for my business,’ Simpson adds, ‘but the best piece of advice he ever gave me is to aspire to have nothing to do.’

A two-way process

However, before you approach a possible suitor, you must attempt to understand what the mentor will get out of the process, as well as assessing what they can bring to your business.

‘It’s important to tap into a mentor’s motivation for working with you – for example, is it for kudos, or ego? Mentoring is not just about being an expert in a particular field, but more the ability to be honest with the person you are helping,’ believes Richard Parkes Cordock, founder of home study course Millionaire MBA.

On top of this, he suggests that you, as a business leader, need to be very direct and very focused when dealing with mentors. ‘If you are too wishy-washy, no mentor will want to spend their time being your life counsellor.’

His other bit of advice is that, if you can, you should widen the circle of the experts advising you. ‘You shouldn’t restrict yourself to one mentor – many successful entrepreneurs surround themselves with a team.’

Former bosses can be invaluable

Such a strategy has worked well for Garvis Snook, chief executive of Rok Property Solutions, who turned to two previous bosses to help him transform a traditional building contractor from the south-west of England into a property solutions provider with build, development and maintenance divisions, which expects to post £14 million in pre-tax profits this year.

Both of Snook’s mentors were founders of companies he worked for. Bill Stansell was the seventh generation to run the family construction business Stansell Ltd, where Snook eventually became managing director. ‘Bill taught me all about customer relationships and how imperative it is to serve the customer well in order to build long-term relationships, which leads to long-term profits,’ recalls Snook.

When Stansell became part of construction services giant Morgan Sindall in the 1980s, Snook met the second big influence in his career – John Morgan, who founded Morgan Sindall in 1977.

‘I learnt an awful lot from Morgan, most importantly, how to develop a modern open culture in an old-fashioned industry,’ says Snook. Out went the methodology of using positional power within the staff environment. Instead, there has been an emphasis on empowerment of employees, a creed that Snook has nurtured to this day in his current role.

Informal routes can work well

Anna Britnor Guest, of the Coaching and Mentoring Network, which provides resources for both mentors and mentees, believes that some of the most powerful mentoring relationships can emerge from the most unlikely, informal situations, but adds that this is not an easy route to follow.

‘Informal mentors may be found amongst former colleagues or bosses, contacts from other businesses, and contacts through networking organisations. For those who are not “backward in coming forward”, if you identify someone you would like to be your mentor, there’s no harm in asking the direct question!’ she suggests.

But if your choice of mentor turns out to not have the time for you and your business, what are your other options? Your lawyer, bank manager or accountant may not be your first port of call when it comes to choosing a mentor, but think again. A survey carried out by Sage in July this year showed that accountants are the most trusted business advisers – and not just for financial matters – 69 per cent of those surveyed ask their accountants about general business issues.

Match-making networks

If you want something more structured, there are an increasing number of established forums in existence, but with a wide range of services and prices to choose from, it is important to identify exactly what you looking for in a mentor.

One such professional network is TEC, an organisation that provides mentoring services to businesses turning over between £2million and £50 million.

Alternatively, there is The Academy for Chief Executives, which meets in groups of 12-15 non-competing chief executives in locations around the country for a full day every month.

Robert Drew, chief executive of TEC believes a mentor must fulfil the role of both a coach and a confidante. At TEC, members take it in turns to host the monthly meetings – which are structured around a two-hour, one-to-one session between mentor and mentee, and a series of talks.

‘Feedback shows that our members believe mentoring sessions help them to make better decisions and bounce ideas off people who may have been in similar positions previously. Our mentors also want to make sure that chief execs lead a balanced life and overcome a sense of isolation. Once you make a commitment, you have to attend – you are expected to give as well as receive,’ reinforces Drew.

Get value for your money

A service such as TEC offers will set you back around £9,000 a year – incentive enough, perhaps, to ensure you attend on a regular basis and make the most of the services offered. And if you opt for a coaching service prices vary enormously. Parkes Cordock recalls that he considered using an executive coach, but at around £1,000-£2,000 a month, the service can prove steep for cash-strapped enterprises.

Interestingly, not everyone is convinced that such structured, organised networks can really deliver – for instance, Carayol insists that ‘the best mentoring relationships are free.’

Emotional support

Carayol does, however, admit that wherever you meet your mentor, one of the most important aspects of any developing relationship is the emotional support, an intangible benefit lauded by Adam Burdess, entrepreneur in residence at the Summer Entrepreneurship School, run by London Business School.

‘Mentors can add value on the emotional side. One of the toughest things for entrepreneurs is weathering the ups and downs of business – it’s important
to have someone alongside you who has been there and who has an insight into what it’s like, on both an emotional and practical level,’ comments Burdess.

He adds that the more entrepreneurs share, the better they are.

A varied role

Perhaps the most successful mentoring relationships are those where the mentor can assume a variety of roles, from the listener, to the instigator, to the adviser.

Judith Rutherford, chief executive of Government advisory service Business Link for London, believes that mentors must possess a range of characteristics and fulfil certain criteria to be truly effective.

‘It should be someone who is immune from company politics and agenda, and who can offer expert counsel in order to develop individuals’ strengths and skills. One-to-one attention is key to the effectiveness of the relationship as is the rapport between both parties. The coach/mentor must know when to stretch their protégé and when support is required,’ she explains.

Evolution and independence
For his part, David Fenton, audit partner at accountant and business adviser Baker Tilly, believes that a mentor’s role should change as your business needs change. ‘A mentor’s role should vary from holding up a mirror to reflect issues and give clarity, to giving advice or prompting issues that need addressing.’

Importantly, however, he points out that mentors are most effective when they are assisting with certain issues that may not be easily or freely discussed in the boardroom or even with friends or family.

Less is more

If you do find a helpful person to assist you through your business journey, beware of expecting them to help you 24/7. This is because ‘the relationship between a mentor and mentee demands a delicate balance,’ says Baker Tilly’s Fenton.

‘Over-reliance or overexposure to the mentor can detract from the benefit. While advisers are there as a continual source of support and guidance, they must also be wary of getting drawn into the day-to-day business issues on an ongoing basis. This can lead to the vital element of independence and dispassionate distance being lost,’ he stresses.

This means a certain level of discipline must be enforced, and that owner-managers must be seen by the rest of the company to maintain leadership and to take decisions.

‘Never become overly dependent on a mentor, but you should be able to turn to them at crucial times as a sounding board for advice. If you know in which direction you want to go – a mentor may help you get there faster,’ believes Parkes Cordock.

Case Study Solving recruitment crises…and more

Marketing and design consultancy N1 Creative is one example of a company where the role of the mentor has changed as the business has grown. N1 originally turned to mentor Kingsley James from management solutions company Prevista (through a recommendation from Business Link) for a specific reason – it had reached a crisis point with its recruitment strategy.

‘The questions were endless: who should we recruit? What should the job description include? Where should we look? How much should we pay? And what about employment law? Kingsley James was able to coach and mentor us through these and many other issues,’ explains managing director Glenn Elliott.

He believes that as a direct result of the mentor, the company has achieved measurable results, such as a doubling of turnover each year for the last three years, and the decision to move into bigger premises as a result of rapid growth. And James is still with the business today. Elliott is keen to encourage dozens of other small business owners to ask for Business Link mentoring to help improve their business.

Need to know…How to build a successful mentoring relationship

  • Both parties should feel mutual respect and empathy towards each other and must be committed to achieving results
  • Clear objectives need to be set against which progress can eventually be evaluated
  • Both the mentor and the person being mentored need to understand what is required of each of them. The mentor’s role is to challenge and support without imposing their own agenda, while the recipient of mentoring should attempt to tackle areas for development
  • The preferred communication channels for the mentoring process must be established, it may require a combination of face-to-face sessions, telephone and email.

Source: Business Link for London

First class coach?

Similar to mentoring is the concept of executive coaching. As Richard Parkes Cordock outlines, ‘coaching helps you find your goals, whereas mentoring helps you achieve them.

Taking up this theme, the Coaching and Mentoring Network’s Britnor Guest says the difference between the two has been a rumbling debate for years.

‘Both can be a highly facilitative process or a more directive process. It’s probably helpful to ignore the label of coach or mentor and focus more on whether you want someone to facilitate you in your thinking or whether you want someone to transfer specific skills to you,’ she suggests.

Of course, coaching as a concept is nothing new, but can it work with business as well as with sport?

‘The motivational benefits of using a coach – for directors and employees – cannot be underestimated. Whether on a personal level or by investing in employees, companies developing a strong coaching culture demonstrate a solid commitment to empowering employees to learn and grow. The use of coaching for personal development pays dividends in the potential it can unlock,’ believes Business Link’s CEO Judith Rutherford.


Academy for chief executives ( offers coaching sessions to its members

Business gateway ( a partnership between Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Executive and the local authorities. Offers mentoring services for different types of business owners

Business Link for London ( can put you in touch with experienced mentors

The coaching and mentoring network ( offers resources and information on coaching and mentoring

The Enterprise Centre ( offers a free mentoring service to businesses in Sussex

Millionaire MBA ( offers a service for existing mentors and coaches

Prelude 2 Business ( provides mentoring and networking services for entrepreneurs, and runs a forum called The Supper Club

TEC ( offers mentoring, networking and coaching opportunities. Members meet once a month.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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Business mentoring