A mentor is a ‘must have’
Apart from hand-holding, plausibility checking and providing a shoulder to cry on when the going gets tough, a mentor will help you take ideas from concept to commercialisation, or move from start-up to scale-up, and everything in-between. Mentors draw from their vast experience to prevent you from making the same mistakes they made during their career. Why ‘reinvent the wheel’ when all you need is to discuss the issue with someone who will understand and offer sound advice. After weighing up suggestions and examining options, you will be able to action what works best for your business and fits your company ethos.
Why work with a mentor?
If you were to ask my clients why they choose to work with me as a mentor, chances are you would receive a different answer from each, because each client is distinct and unique. That is not to say I do not see similar issues occurring in completely unrelated businesses and industrial sectors, but personalities differ; and ethos, personal ambitions and visions vary from company to company. Even different sessions with the same client differ as a diverse range of issues are covered and discussed over time, new issues emerge, and key lessons are learned.
So why work with a mentor? Here are some of the things we have worked on with clients past and present, to illustrate how powerful mentoring can be and what it takes to be a good mentee:
If you were to ask my clients why they choose to work with me as a mentor, chances are you would receive a different answer from each, because each client is distinct and unique.
1. Launching a new product or service
Let’s take the example of developing and launching a new product. You may not be sure of the best strategy to get the product to market, or which partners might prove the most useful and beneficial. You have several thoughts and ideas but would prefer to run them by someone experienced who has a track record of creating partnerships.
Our client was working with a local university to develop a new platform technology and had engaged a subcontractor to develop the software platform. In this instance, the entrepreneurs were extremely savvy. All we needed to do was to listen, understand key issues, take on board their concerns and fears, discuss pros and cons, ask questions and then advise.
We suggested several strategies to overcome various issues and saved a lot of stress and sleepless nights. We also affected key introductions in the industrial sector. This is a great example of how discussing ideas and thoughts with a mentor can be extremely valuable, as well as tapping into their network to meet key movers and shakers.
This was a classic mentoring situation where the company did not know about certain key issues because no-one had asked the questions we typically ask.
2. Implementing new business systems
Companies that have been in business for several years can become vulnerable by believing they have all the right systems and controls in place when this may not be the case, and indeed it often isn’t. The problem is, you do not know what you don’t know! Think about that! You know what you know, you know there are subjects you know nothing or very little about (for example, how to pole vault), but there are areas of which you have little awareness as you have not encountered them or nobody asked a key question alerting you to your obliviousness.
To illustrate, I met with a new client for the first time. In that initial meeting, the client stated that she wanted help to launch a new product. It soon became clear, however, that variable costs were not being measured. The company was most likely making a profit on some projects, breaking-even on others, and potentially losing money on other projects, even though the company was profitable overall.
The original reason for engaging with us went on hold – there was no point in launching a new product if the company was losing money and potentially could go out of business if it became involved in several large projects.
3. Sounding board
Having your own business often means sleepless nights. Only when you leave full-time employment do you fully comprehend the risks that you have taken. There is no income unless you create it. Simple as that.
No-one pays your pension, car allowance, sick pay, holidays or even weekends! If you’re a professional, you may have many unbillable hours. Not every day counts if you’re doing your admin. or in meetings with potential clients that do not convert into business. Similarly, attending networking events when you are not on a salary is precarious if you are not networking in a network that will lead to leads that convert.
I recall sitting in a café soon after starting up LAR Consultancy, waiting for my pooch who was undergoing cancer surgery, when that realisation hit home. When I was gainfully employed, I had never worried about fuel increases, mortgage payments or going on shopping sprees, not that I was ever big on shopping, but it was nice to not think too much about it when I did!
It is very true when they say it is lonely at the top. Having someone experienced to talk to can be a great comfort. Discussing issues that are concerning you and hearing how mentors solved similar in the past, saves time, stress and often, costs. This in turn improves your bottom line. More profit means more dividends. Contacting a mentor will allow you to access advice on your concerns, issues and help you to create a long-term strategy to achieve your vision.
A couple of years ago we worked with two founding partners / directors who have very different personalities, as is often the case. If not managed carefully, companies can dissolve because the founding partners do not get on. It certainly impacts not only the day-to-day atmosphere in the office, but also the chance of raising investment. As a company grows, especially technology and innovation led firms, it will need to raise several rounds of investment. Investors are not stupid and will detect the level of engagement between key executives and will be deterred from investing if they do not like what they see.
In this case, our mentees comprised the CEO, and the ‘Brains’ – the inventor/engineer. Both were extremely well connected and networked, having worked in the industrial sector for many years. Our sessions focused mainly on being a sounding board, understanding the stress the CEO was under due to communication problems with his business partner. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with either of them, except for not being able to communicate effectively. They pushed each other’s ‘buttons’, making it hard to conserve energy to overcome the hurdles to becoming a huge success. By being a sounding board, understanding how the communication breakdowns were being caused, we improved the team work and reduced stress levels.
4. Asking ‘difficult’ questions
Mentors know what questions to ask to help you to focus on key issues. They can help you prioritize, so you do not waste time on the less important issues. The questions will provoke thought, possibly about things you may not have considered for some time, if at all, which could inspire epiphanies.
To illustrate this point, let me tell you about a company that had been in business for eight years and initially, used to work with medium to large size clients. These clients were not as price sensitive as the smaller customers and demanded top quality. This was exactly the kind of work my client loved to produce, because it forced them to be creative, and to be the best that they could possibly be. There is nothing better, when you are in business, than delivering above and beyond anything your client could have hoped for. It is gratifying. It is wholly rewarding. It’s what it’s all about!
But over the years, by running after the money, they increasingly engaged with lower end, price-sensitive work for smaller clients who argued on price and did not appreciate the talented and creative results of my client’s endeavours. This resulted in my client losing their ‘mojo’. My mentee was finding it hard to get out of bed in the morning (sound familiar?!).
At this point we were brought on board. By working with the MD on the company ethos, energy levels increased, marketing messages became strong and focused, and attracted the higher-end, less price and more quality sensitive clients – exactly the kind of customers my client wanted to work with and for, as they had in the past. Result? A very happy mentee doing extremely rewarding work, so we were buzzing too!
This is a big one! Focus! Entrepreneurs are typically a gregarious, creative and risk-taking bunch and we love them for it. Unfortunately, the flip side is they have so much energy they often find it hard to focus. ‘Grounding’ them and bringing them back to ‘planet earth’, helping them to achieve their goals without too much distraction and wasted energy, is absolutely crucial.
If the head of the company is the inventor/engineer, there is a danger s/he will become too focused on the engineering and not release a product to market until it is perfect, not understanding that the product doesn’t have to have all of the functionality to be of use to the end-user. Version 2 will improve on version 1, version 3 will improve on version 2, and so on. Getting a product to market within a time frame is crucial.
Everything in moderation… A good mentor will help the client to understand the importance of focus.
A mentor has many roles, but the key role is helping you, the client, make the right decisions at the right time. Note, you are always in the driving seat, and ultimately, you are the one who is responsible and accountable. But it is very lonely at the top. Who do you turn to when you need advice or a plausibility or feasibility check? Who do you talk to when you have difficult issues to resolve and cannot figure them out by yourself, or have several options but are not sure which is the best and wish to discuss pros and cons with someone who will understand?
There is, however, a caveat. Our clients also have a key role to play. What do you think is needed to derive the full benefits of working with a mentor? Let me answer that for you.
You need to be coachable – meaning you need to trust the mentor, have chemistry with your mentor, and above all – put your ‘active listening’ skills into gear before and during each session. That does not mean you take all the mentor’s advice on board – but you should certainly examine this guidance to see if it makes sense to you and discuss any issues in partnership with your mentor. A good mentor will help you to be more successful and reach your vision sooner, while reducing your stress levels along the way.