So You Want to be a Business Mentor?

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A recent call for SME business mentors resulted in an unexpected flood of applications. Hundreds of CVs poured in, the phones rang constantly and the company’s email channels were buzzing. There was even an application from Nigeria… Clearly, there are a lot of people who want to be business mentors out there.

When the dust had settled and we began to review applications, it became clear that the applicants could be grouped into several categories: Very Strong Candidates, Pretty Strong Candidates, Ones for the Future and What Were They Thinking?

The latter category was quite concerning, because it highlighted just how little many people know about what it is a business mentor does, needs to do, and needs to know to be effective and impactful in the role. By way of example, someone who has just finished a two-year Diploma in Business Management, but never worked in a business before, let alone run their own one, is probably not qualified to advise people on how they should be running their business, at this stage of their development anyway.

However, that is not to say that experienced candidates will automatically make good business mentors either. The worst mentor I ever had was the celebrated head of a large business school with decades of corporate experience – and zero understanding of the unique challenges a small and growing business faces. Experience is good; relevant experience is priceless.

For those of you out there who believe you would make a great small business mentor, allow me to share a few traits that are required to succeed in this game, as deduced from my own decade or so as a mentor, as well as the privilege of having worked with some of SA’s finest business growth specialists, such as Catherine Wijnberg of Fetola. To be a mentor, this is some of what you need to bring to the table:

  1. Be experienced. This is not negotiable. If you have never run your own business, or at least been involved at a very senior management level, it is highly unlikely that you are qualified to tell others how to run theirs. I learned more in the first year of running a business than I did in seven years of working for someone else.
  2. Be empathetic. Running any business is tough. Running a small business can be overwhelming. While you may get frustrated at a slow pace of progress or lack of understanding, your job is to guide, support, and encourage wherever possible.
  3. Be hands-off. This is probably the most important skill a great business mentor must possess. The temptation will always be there to jump in and do the work on behalf of your mentee – it’s quicker, the results will be greater, and the contracting party (if there is one) will be impressed at the outcome. The problem is, this approach creates dependency, leaves little opportunity for the mentee to learn and grow, and is actually consulting, not mentoring.
  4. Be a catalyst. Great mentors create opportunities for their mentees to shine and grow by opening the door to opportunities, and helping them walk through it. Teach your mentees about networking, introduce them to people who may be interested in their goods or services, and keep an eye out for opportunities for them to market their business.
  5. Be honest. Sometimes we all need a bit of a reality check. I have worked with entrepreneurs who have some amazing business ideas, and others who have some ridiculous ones. Your role will often be to provide a voice of reason, to help your mentee keep their eye on the ball and not be distracted. It may even involve saying ‘That is a really bad idea.’ The common theme is to be honest and direct with your mentee from the start.
  6. Know your stuff. While in my experience people with MBAs or a business degree do not automatically make good mentors, it is clear that those who can combine relevant, practical entrepreneurial experience with a solid understanding of the theory behind business success often make very strong mentors. So, even if you do not have an MBA, be sure to keep your knowledge of areas such as tax, compliance, business registration, the business climate, financial management and the like up to date and current.

To conclude, if you believe you have the right temperament, experience and knowledge to make an effective business mentor, it can be a very rewarding vocation. Watching someone grow, develop and prosper under your guidance is really exciting, and sometimes, if you do it well enough, it can become a full-time profession.

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fetola-2016-0058Anton Ressel is a Senior Consultant at Fetola and has over 15 years experience as an entrepreneur, trainer, business developer and mentor in the emerging business sector. A published writer for Sawubona, Business Day, fin24, Entrepreneur Magazine and many others, Anton is a Director of the Fetola Foundation as well as co-founder of Streetwires, one of South Africa’s largest and most successful social enterprises. Follow @AntonRes on Twitter.