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Most of us will need guidance, support or a simple sounding board at some point in our careers. Some see having good mentors as absolutely crucial to success. I’ve both had mentors and been a mentor and wanted to share my experiences.
When founding or, as was my experience, taking over the running of a growing business, it can be a pretty lonely and stressful existence. You might feel trapped in a small bubble of your own making.
If you have employees, it can be very hard, and often unwise, to share your burdens or concerns. You risk creating stresses that your team are ill equipped to deal with. If you constantly use family or a partner as a sounding board you have two risks; firstly poor advice loaded with bias and secondly a pretty dull home life.
When I was first running a young business over fifteen years ago I really struggled at times. I had other directors and shareholders, but there were unquestionably times when they were part of the problem rather than a key element of my support network. I also felt (rightly or wrongly) that they were looking to their new MD for solutions rather than problems.
Before I really knew that it was a thing I realised that I needed the external support of a business mentor. At the time I labelled the person I chose to work with my “Rent-A-Boss”. This was someone I met up with every couple of months; I updated them on progress, they reminded me of goals I’d set at our last meeting, helped analyze problems where I’d failed to meet some goals and, just as importantly, helped me celebrate the successes when I’d beaten my targets or tackled a particularly thorny challenge.
I had chosen to go down the route of paid mentor support and this really focussed the mind. Money was tight and it was up to me to ensure that I got a return from the relationship. I carefully prepared for our meetings and tried to get as much out of every conversation as I could. This was helped by the fact that my chosen mentor was a high profile individual in my sector; I was keen to make a positive impact with both him and his network. I had no desire to be the guy who hadn’t quite made it!
As my business evolved and my network widened, I felt less need for a formal mentor/mentee relationship with one individual. I kept in touch with my previous mentor but on a more ad-hoc basis. I was, however, regularly tapping into the thoughts and ideas of friends and industry colleagues who also ran businesses or faced many of the same difficulties that I was having to tackle.
The next step in my journey through mentoring was, alongside the original founders and shareholders, selling the business I was running. Releasing some money was inevitably a draw, but one of the key considerations for me personally was the potential to work with the prospective buyer. This was someone I’d worked for in the past (albeit at a distance — I was very low down the food chain at the time) and had enormous respect for. I felt I could learn a lot working with him. We never formally identified as mentor/mentee, but that was an important element of much of our working relationship. I enjoyed another great phase of learning and developing.
Whilst always on the lookout for mentors to help me on my career and personal journey, I also started to be in a position where I had the opportunity to support others. Some of this was within my business and I enormously enjoyed seeing many of my team develop their skills and attitude to a point where they could take on exciting new opportunities that would have felt out of reach a short time before — even if this sometimes meant they had outgrown what I could offer them as an employer.
I also started working with people in my sector and in business in general. Sharing experiences, mistakes and insights can be enormously enjoyable and rewarding. I got involved in Business Mentoring for the Princes Trust and more recently with Virgin Start-Ups. Hopefully, I have been able to help some of the people I’ve worked with see the wood for the trees and avoid a few of the stresses, strains and screw-ups I’ve encountered on my business journey.
My current role as COO at Equals Collective came, to a certain extent, out of informal mentoring type conversations. I’d been meeting up with co-founder Harry East for coffee or a meal every now and then to discuss the challenges he faced running a growing business (staffing, cashflow, planning … all of the usual stuff!). When he and Peter Rossi were ready to launch Collective the conversations took us in another direction. Together we now provide a mentoring role for many of our clients; particularly those taking their first steps in growing a start-up.
What are my conclusions? Don’t be afraid to reach out for mentoring support when you need it. Be comfortable paying for help if you are happy you’re getting value; it can transform your way of looking at your business by bringing in new perspectives and significantly reduce some of the inevitable stress points you’ll hit. And, when you have got to a point where you feel you may have something you’re able to help others with, be generous with your time. You won’t just help somebody else, you’ll continue to learn and develop yourself.