There are many schemes offering business mentoring for new enterprises. It seems that mentoring is the new buzzword and that everyone wants to be a mentor – but is it as easy as it seems?

I’ve been lucky enough this year to be involved in setting up a new programme for Santander Breakthrough in relation to mentoring female business leaders. I jumped at the chance, as often I find that female entrepreneurs can lack confidence in venturing out into entrepreneurship, seeing the risks as too high. The huge difference in this programme was that it was to be run by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs.

There is plenty of generic business advice out there and a lot of it is of limited value. Certainly what I’ve needed since I set up my own business, was access to somebody that’s been there and done it, that is five years ahead of me with the battle scars to prove it. There is nothing so valuable as learning from other business owners. So this programme from Santander, which was specifically designed to provide this support, was irresistible.

And it’s been very successful to date with some 20 leading female entrepreneurs up and down the country doing a great job in engaging and mentoring a range of SME leaders, supported by a number of networking events.

However, what we’ve realized is that mentoring isn’t as easy as it might appear and can be mired with pitfalls. So what lessons can we glean?

  • Entrepreneurial mentors really are best for other entrepreneurs – Receiving poor coaching or mentoring is the fastest way to hurt an entrepreneur. There is nothing worse than somebody staking a claim on your precious time by giving irrelevant advice. Finding another entrepreneur that you can admire and respect is key. Mentoring is relational after all, and you need to enjoy the conversation.
  • Mentees need to want to be mentored – This sounds so obvious to say, but we’ve seen a lot of potential mentees who are ‘sign up junkies’ wanting to be part of the latest programme, without being ready when the time has come to commit properly to the time needed or the learning mindset needed. After all, great mentors can’t make progress by themselves.
  • But beware the motivations of a mentor – Similarly, you have to watch the motivations of the mentor, if it’s all about them and being seen to ‘give back’ then beware. A mentor should have the ability to critique and challenge mentees in a way that's non-threatening, and helps them look at a situation from a new perspective. As a mentor, you are there to encourage, nurture, and provide support, because you've already ‘walked the path’ of the mentee, not for personal gain. All of our mentors receive training and this is non-negotiable. Just because you’ve got a track record doesn’t mean you’ll be a good mentor, like everything else it needs time and work.
  • Play by the rules – Often mentoring relationships fail because the expectations haven’t been set firmly enough at the beginning. Outcomes are important for any such programme, and a framework to establish objectives is important. Mentoring isn’t a ‘nice chat’; both the mentor and mentee need to achieve something.
  • Entrepreneurs say it like it is – Feedback from entrepreneurs is often immediate, robust and can be far from gentle. Tough love is important and potential mentees need to be ready for it. The entrepreneurial mentor doesn’t have time for clichés and ‘talking shops’. Progress needs to be real, meaningful and measurable. Entrepreneurial mentors will skip the sound-bytes and mentees need to be ready.
  • Like for like is not helpful – Our tendency is to gravitate toward those with whom we have a lot in common, or who are running similar businesses to ourselves. In fact through the programme it’s been the matching of businesses outside of an entrepreneur’s field that has often led to the best results. So don’t be afraid to link with a mentor from a completely different background, having the benefit of a different mindset can be invaluable.
Mentoring is a huge help to any over busy, over stretched entrepreneur, none of us has time to chase rainbows... However, mentoring also needs great thought and care – and we should all recognize that it’s not so easy after all…

By Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4