I have worked in “strategy” for over twenty years and during that time I’ve experienced what works to grow businesses and get results. I’ve seen a multitude of leadership styles and witnessed a plethora of business opportunities and challenges. In 2012 I started business mentoring, working one-to-one with entrepreneurs to help them grow their businesses by utilising my knowledge and experience in strategy development, sales and marketing, organisational behaviour, finance and investment.
What is business mentoring?
Business mentoring to me is working with you, the entrepreneur, to guide, advise and coach you on the journey to business growth and success. This table neatly sums up the differences between mentoring, consulting, therapy and coaching. I tend to find my form of mentoring has a coaching element too.
What experience do I bring to the mentoring relationship?
I’m fortunate to have strong cross-functional expertise. Entrepreneurs bring ideas, passion, energy and business acumen but being all things to all people is tricky as most of us have deep functional experience rather than cross-functional.
I started my career as a strategy consultant working on projects ranging from strategic evaluation of business opportunities to analysis of acquisitions. Following on from graduating in the top 10% of my MBA class at Kellogg, I went to work for Glaxo SmithKline and witnessed first-hand just how good ‘blue chip’ sales and marketing can be. I’ve always had a strong financial background (starting from studying Economics at undergrad) so Private Equity was a natural next step. At HgCapital I honed my financial analysis skills, became very adept at spotting good investment opportunities and gained a thorough understanding of entrepreneurial finance. While at Hg, I held four hands-on Non-Executive Director roles and saw through significant organisation change projects, worked with good and bad leaders and fundamentally learned what it takes to drive a business forward.
Decision making and why mentoring helps
Entrepreneurship is characterised by making lots of decisions, many in the face of limited or incomplete information. I find the value of my cross-functional experience is to add insight and to support and challenge you as you make these critical decisions, so, for instance, we will talk about risk and reward and I’ll ask about the broader impact of your decisions on your business. Together we will paint a picture of the potential result of your decisions and how your priorities for the short, medium and long term should adjust.
Also, I will push you to make a decision. In my experience, the absolute worst leaders are those who dither and deliberate and hesitate. This is because, and I’ve seen it so many times, an indecisive leader means an unhappy, directionless team which destroys value and inhibits growth. I encourage entrepreneurs to avoid over-analysis and to not strive for perfection in their decision-making but instead to make good, timely decisions based on a combination of fact, information, experience and insight.
Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely place
The other down-side of being the principal decision maker in your business is that you can’t be wholly ‘open book’ with your team about all your hopes and concerns because this too can impact team morale. Neither can you do this with your investors, as you may see them relatively infrequently and whilst you must be honest with them (and don’t hide bad news) they won’t be hugely interested in hearing your constant thought monolog. This means the world of entrepreneurship can sometimes feel an isolated and lonely place. This is particularly the case when an entrepreneur has yet to build a valued team around them. Those I have mentored over the last five years will a test that sometimes the most valued role I can play is simply to be a sounding board and someone with whom they can talk openly.
In the main, its all about people
A significant proportion of the time I spend mentoring is taken up by talking about people problems. Entrepreneurs often find themselves alone facing the myriad of people related issues that can crop up when running a company. Specifically, let’s take recruitment where I’m often in the background discussing the merits of expanding the team and what type of individual is needed, but also, on occasion, I directly interview senior hires as, beyond the CEO and the recruitment consultant, I am the only other person suitably experienced person. It is annoying that recruitment can take so long, but this is part of planning and I’ll encourage you to kick off processes because you can always turn them off. One of the hardest decisions for entrepreneurs is to invest in people ahead of growth and we’ll talk about this regularly.
If only every hire would work out just as planned, but sadly they don’t and when this happens the consequences can be significant in early stage businesses because you rely so heavily on such a small number of people. I’m on hand to discuss performance related issues, suggest improvement processes and think through with you how to get the best out of a person or, in the worst cases, make a plan for succession. When you are focused on the excitement of product launches and winning new business, it can be hard to put time aside for performance appraisals, training and development but these processes are necessary and important too. I’ll also encourage you to develop a strong corporate culture, based on vision and supported by ethics, which helps create a cohesive team and manages risk.
For when it gets really tricky, I’ve useful experience. I trained as a Commerical Mediator, qualified by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution CEDR in 2012. I’ve also had to put a business into Administration and I’ve a pretty good understanding of relevant employment law. I’ll know when you need to get proper advice and I can steer you in that direction.
What are the specific challenges I can help you with?
Multitudes of challenges face a business as it grows which involve immediate, short term and long term decision making. The mentoring I do is always bespoke to your needs. In general, we will cover any immediate issues you are facing and then look forward one, three and six months to what you need to do to get the business to where you want it to be in that time. Then specifically, we can focus in on topics that you, or we, have identified as needing attention such as:
- Business development
- Marketing messages & advertising spend & PR
- Sales tactics
- Operations & cost control
- Recruitment & your team
- Overheads & administration
- Cash management & accounting
- Raising finance
- Risk management
- Strategic planning
In scale-up businesses we can add:
- New product development
- Equity and debt structuring
- Finance, CRM and HR systems
- Quality control
We can also work on you and your own personal challenges such as:
- Leadership skills
- Vision and insight
- Decision making
A note about investment and raising finance
Raising finance can be a particularly testing time for any entrepreneur, whether it’s your first-time with Angels or if you are very experienced and raising money from institutions. As I was a Private Equity investor, I have insight into what investors are looking for. I’ve read dozens of business summaries, business plans and pitch documents. I am very happy to give you feedback on your documents and give you some pointers as to how you can make them more compelling. I’m also available for you when you are negotiating terms and going over legal documents, especially because however much an investor says they will ‘make it simple’ they never seem to, albeit possibly in their minds eye those twenty investor consents are simple! Most recently several of my mentees have raised money through crowd-funding so I have familiarity with this method too.
How often do you meet?
Mentoring works really well in a six to twelve-month window where we meet or talk monthly. I prefer face-to-face mentoring meetings wherever possible as I find they are the most productive. At times, it will be helpful for you to do some preparation and for some businesses we will decide on a format for a monthly update, akin to a mini Board meeting, but for others who already have Boards this will be inappropriate. The more informed I can be about your business and its challenges the better, and therefore it works best to have meetings monthly so nothing gets stale or out of date.
Where I have developed strong and productive relationships the mentoring flips to quarterly or I have become a Non-Executive Director.