Peer to peer learning is a proven way to inspire business people and equip them with the knowledge to become successful. But it pays to do your research carefully before making the decision to mentor or be mentored – even more so if you are a woman at the helm of a SME.
Michelle Wright, founder CEO of Cause4, an organisation which helps charities, startups and social enterprises to grow, discusses the pitfalls and pleasures of putting your business under the microscope.
The Federation of Small Businesses calculates women’s enterprise contributes around £130 billion to UK’s turnover and £70 billion Gross Value Added every year. However, if the UK could achieve the same levels of female entrepreneurship as the US, it would contribute an additional £42 billion to the economy. So why do we struggle?
It’s not a cliché to say that many female entrepreneurs often lack conﬁdence when starting out on their own, myself included. And then, once in business, it can be a challenge to make the step change to achieve the growth the company deserves without getting lost in the stress and pressure. I wish I’d had someone with a few more years of experience and the battle scars to prove it to advise me when I started out in business.
Mentoring is a terriﬁc way to help you look at the bigger picture. My own experience speaking to likeminded female entrepreneurs, and mentoring other business professionals, inspired me to work with Santander on its Women in Breakthrough Business programme.
Entrepreneur to entrepreneur
We recognized through the programme the vital need for mentoring – entrepreneur to entrepreneur. And that’s the point – the most valuable mentoring for an entrepreneur is to learn from somebody that’s been there and done it. So be selective, very selective…
Entrepreneurship is very ‘en vogue’ and there is swathes of generic business advice opportunities out there for SME founders, but beware the good-hearted but inexperienced mentor. They might give you some ok advice but, more worryingly, might also eat up a lot of your time. As time is a founder’s most valuable and limited resource we all need to make good decisions about who we work with.
Make the right match
Mentoring is maybe one of the most important relationships you will have, so it’s vital to ﬁnd someone you can admire and respect – in fact you deserve it! A good mentor will be focused on you and not on themselves, will challenge you constantly but in a non-threatening way and will help you look at things from a new perspective.
If the conversations you’re having as part of any mentoring activity seem to be irrelevant, or even distracting from the vision you have, then start questioning whether your mentor is the right person for you. If the relationship isn’t gelling then ‘fail it fast’ – female entrepreneurs sometimes forget they have the choice to change.
Do the graft
Many mentoring relationships fail because the expectations of the mentee were unrealistic from the start. Prospective mentees need to realise that they are not just there for a cozy chat. Some of the advice they receive will be hard to hear. So be prepared to listen to some harsh truths (it’s tough love) and take them on the chin. Wanting change is one thing – being prepared to change is another.
Hopefully, you will have a brilliant mentor but you also need to recognize your role as an ideal mentee – and for me that’s someone who is prepared to work, is open-minded, non-defensive and selective with information they receive. And that last point is essential, not all advice will be good advice – you’re the expert about your own business so you need to be clear what to take forward and what to leave behind.
After all, the mentor is not a magician. You are the one that will have to ‘pull the rabbit out of the hat’.
Leave Your Comfort Zone
Our tendency is often to gravitate towards those with whom we have a lot in common or who are running similar businesses to ourselves. It can pay to listen to someone from a completely different background as a different mindset can prove invaluable. The principles of business apply across all sectors and it can be good to talk to an outsider. Professional rivalry will be non-existent and you can clearly see the fundamental actions you need to take.
In order to help women running SMEs to ﬂourish, despite all the challenges, Cause4 has been working alongside Santander to develop the mentoring programme Women in Breakthrough Businesses. In its second year, the programme trains successful fast-growth female entrepreneurs as mentors and matches them with female entrepreneurs looking to improve their businesses. Mentors meet with their assigned business clients every six weeks and the mentees are also offered training and networking opportunities. The results have been a pleasant surprise for everyone involved.
Linda Lewis of Linda Lewis Kitchens Limited was mentored by Susanna Lawson, of software company, OneFile. Initially skeptical of the project, Linda was ultimately thrilled at the changes made to both her and her company and felt like “a fog had lifted”. Regular discussions between the entrepreneurs tackled issues such as stafﬁng and business growth. Despite their differing business backgrounds, Susanna enjoyed mentoring and said it was “rewarding to work with someone like Linda to help her reach her goals and provide some practical assistance too”.
June O’ Sullivan MBE, CEO of childcare charity London Early Years Foundation mentored Victoria and Becky Valentine of Nottingham property company Spenbeck Ltd. Business advice from someone who had successfully established her own enterprise made a big impression on Victoria and Becky who remarked that June had “helped us see how to refresh our brand and demonstrate our service in a way that appeals to the right audience”.
In June O’ Sullivan’s opinion, the traditional glass ceiling is “double glazed” for women running social enterprises and start-ups. She feels that experienced business women have a duty to lead others by example and provide them with a solid foundation for the future. So take note, all female entrepreneurs. Get yourselves a great mentor.