When Nick Ford was asked to attend a friend’s presentation at the Association of British Mentors (ABM), a nonprofit that connects entrepreneurs with business mentors, he didn’t think he would walk away with a mentor of his own. Yet that’s exactly what happened. And now, as his prepares to reopen his business after UK's stay-at-home guidance has been relaxed, his fortuitous connection to Simon Fordham, an ABM mentor, is proving invaluable.
"You cannot operate alone and be effective," says Ford, who founded PipSqueak Developments Ltd., an architectural engineering firm. "I decided this was the time my company most needed the input of someone that had experience, contacts – who could provide a levelling influence."
As the economy continues to shift and businesses pivot in response, mentors can offer guidance, share resources, and lend a sympathetic ear. We spoke with Ford, his mentor Simon Fordham, who is also Chair of the ABM, and Mark Maloney, senior corporate affairs manager from Be the Business, a nonprofit that supports SMEs through a variety of initiatives, about why businesses should navigate this new landscape with the help of a mentor – and how you can go about finding one.
Why Mentorship Is Important
A mentor can be your resource for new ideas and big-picture approaches that you might not have thought of, since you're so focused on the day-to-day operations. They can also direct leaders to the right resources and leverage their network to connect business owners to potential new partners.
"While the challenges may be new to the business owner, they’re probably not new in the world of business," Fordham says. "I’ve been through the worst in business and I can help owners not to make the same potential mistakes that I did."
Mentors from the ABM have either owned a business or run a significant profit centre in an organisation, which means they can provide first-hand support, advice, and empathy. To Ford, it's about having someone by his side to lend an ear and put a few words in the right place.
Navigating the Current Environment
This type of guidance can be particularly helpful as business owners respond to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mentors will be able to offer insights they’ve learned from past economic downturns, and share actionable advice on what worked and what didn’t work during that time. "Simon encouraged me to identify the areas of PipSqueak that make money and focus on them," says Ford. "It sounds so simple that it's easy to say, 'well that's obvious', but from inside the goldfish bowl, it wasn't."
During times of crisis, Maloney says a core part of mentoring is listening and acting as a "critical friend". Mentors will have handled business-critical challenges before. "They will have had to make real-time decisions that have had serious business impacts," he says. They can listen to your options and help address challenges such as remote people management, cash flow management, new customer engagement strategies, supply chain disruption, and getting your small business online quickly.
Be the Business has a "Rapid Response" mentoring programme that matches small businesses with a mentor within two weeks, to immediately start working on a plan to address the company's most pressing challenges.
How to Find a Business Mentor
Mentors can come in all forms, both formal and informal. They can be anyone – bosses, former colleagues, university professors, friends, fellow business owners and even past clients. Sometimes, it can be as simple as meeting someone you hit it off with at a networking event.
For a more formal mentor relationship, online platforms such as Meet-a-Mentor and MentorsMe that can put you in touch with organisations such as the ABM and Be the Business, are great places to start. These organisations will be able to help you establish what expectations to set from the relationship, in addition to giving access to frameworks, guidelines, and learning tools.
Becoming a Mentor Yourself
While mentees can benefit from working with a mentor, mentors themselves can learn and grow from the relationship, too. Being a mentor not only has a feel-good factor, but you'll also improve your communication and leadership skills along the way. Most mentors are flexible in how they work with their mentees, managing their time and how they communicate directly with each other. Depending on the arrangements made, consultation can take place online or over the telephone, as regular individual meetings or even as part of a discussion group.
Be the Business typically sources its mentors from large companies, who use the programme to help develop their senior talent. This allows them to bring a new perspective and confidence back to their "day job", as Maloney says.
"Running a small business is a bit like being a goldfish inside a goldfish bowl," Ford concludes. "Looking outside the bowl, the view can be distorted, and sometimes you need someone to lift you out and pop you into a bigger tank." By nurturing an honest rapport, both mentors and mentees will benefit from the relationship and gain exposure to diverse perspectives and different ways of problem-solving.