The power of business mentorship lies in finding the right match

When asked how important having a mentor is when it comes to the development and growth of a business, Business Partners Limited SME Index respondents rated the average importance level as 73%.

According to Lionel Billings, head of consulting services for Business Partners Limited, who matches quality business mentors with business owners, all new business owners, or entrepreneurs, should find a mentor to assist and guide them on in their business journey.

He says this process does, however, come with its challenges, and even once a mentor is found with the required set of skills to help a business owner with a particular problem, the process may not be successful simply due to a clash of personalities. But when the match works, Billings says there is enormous satisfaction of seeing potential and wealth unleashed as the “wobbly” business turns around and starts growing.

He believes that business owners owe it to themselves and their businesses to experience the power of a good mentorship relationship, which he witnesses every day. Finding the right mentor must, however, be handled with care. He offers the following tips to ensure a successful match:

  • Start with acknowledging the fact that you cannot possibly know everything there is about running a business. Even if you are an exceptional all-rounder, individuals always have blind spots, such as areas which you are not familiar with. A fresh pair of eyes, usually looking in from the outside, can quickly spot the gaps in business practices and can also assist with strategies which the business has not yet considered.
  • Before fixing your sights on a mentor, it may be a good idea to have a general health check done on your business. This will give you an idea of the business’s strengths and weaknesses, and assist in deciding whether you need assistance from a specialist mentor, for example, a finance or production expert, or a generalist. Although it is possible to source specialist advice, it may still be a good idea to engage also with a generalist mentor who can take a more detailed overview of the business and working.
  • Finding a mentor may be easier said than done. Commercial consultants, who charge commercial rates for short, specific interventions, are widely available, but structured business mentorship programmes aimed at matching retired experts and captains of industry who want to “give back” are scarce in South Africa. However, business owners can approach government’s Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda), business chambers, or are also able to search for a mentor within their own networks. There are significant resources that are available to business owners, such as Business Partners’ programme, one of the best resourced networks available in South Africa with over 370 mentors.
  • Broaden your mentor profile. For example, an accountant could also act as a mentor should he be willing and able to look at a business holistically rather than just from a narrow accounting point of view. Modern training does give accountants good generalist skills, and they tend to be good advisors when it comes to administrative and governance issues.
  • There is a distinct advantage to finding a mentor who does not need to make a living out of giving advice and guidance. These types of mentors tend to be retired business people who are passionate about assisting entrepreneurs. Unlike commercial consultants, they tend not to watch the clock as closely, and are more affordable and flexible.
  • It is important to set clear terms of engagement, stipulating a certain number of hours or a certain scope of intervention. Mentor relationships tend to go bad when there is a mismatch in expectation from either side. Just like any other service, shop around until you are able to find a good match. A mentor not only needs the right skills set, but also the right personality to gel with that of the business owner.
  • Guard against the mentor taking business issues over. This can easily happen if the mentor is a retired industry leader who is used to taking change. It could also happen when business owners feel overwhelmed, and are looking to hand over responsibility. The mentor is there to give advice; the business owner must still do the implementing.
  • Business owners should also ensure that they do not develop an unhealthy dependency on the mentor as there is also a lot of value in developing a long-term relationship. Business ownership is often a lonely pursuit, and every entrepreneur needs at least one outside confidant or a “go-to” person to bounce ideas off, to discuss strategy, and to make those blind spots visible.

Billings says it is wise not to only lean on your own understanding, and appreciate that there is wisdom in the counsel of many. “Mentoring is about empowering yourself to unleash your own, and your business’s full potential,” concludes Billings.

Business Partners is a specialist risk finance company for formal SMEs in South Africa, and selected African countries. The company actively supports entrepreneurial growth by providing financing, specialist sectoral knowledge and added-value services for viable small and medium businesses.