Ade has always been keen on supporting UK based firms to conduct more trade with Africa. So when he set up the East London Export Club it was no surprise. Supporting businesses in this way has been a passion of his. Anyway, coming to business mentoring. I have supported entrepreneurs as a Business Mentor for 7 years now. I remember during my MBA when I was conducting my market research. I wanted to support first time entrepreneurs, but I was not sure how to. I looked at being a Non Executive Director, i.e. sitting on their boards. Yet, felt this position would not fulfil the needs of the entrepreneur holistically. So I looked into mentoring.
Why Business Mentoring ?
In those days. business mentoring meant working with someone from industry. They spent some time together to learn from the experiences of the mentor. It usually came in the form of casual conservations usually in a social setting. I looked into professional business coaching as an option. It was great to maintain performance. But, limited in that it insisted the coach not bring their knowledge base to the table. This was later verified when I joined EMCC - professional body for coaches and mentors. The successful professional support providers highlighted their clients demanded they bring their knowledge base to the table. Despite their professional training not allowing this.
Customised tools for business mentoring
The more I researched the concept of business mentoring the more adamant I became that there was a gap. It focused around the flow of knowledge. I then attended the Coaching Academy Personal Coaching Weekend . Here they talked us through the difference between Consulting, Mentoring, Coaching and instruction. This course confirmed the gap I felt existed. Mentoring training focused on using a coaching framework - GROW Model - for mentoring. Here I felt there was a need to custom design a framework given what mentoring was really about. I then used my MBA course to configure tools and frameworks keeping in mind the differing needs of each category of support.
By working with Entrepreneurs I gradually configured the SECI framework . This is a knowledge creation framework commonly used in industry. The results have been great. I have mentored Post Graduates Students and Staff at King's College, London for 6 years now. I used split testing to verify the validity of the value of the SECI framework. The years when I used it my teams won the top prize. The years when I didn't the results reflected this. Overall, 3 out of the 6 years my teams won the top prize using this framework.
Ade organised this event with the cooperation of Natwest and their parent company RBS at their City of London HQ. The focus was to help SME's become more export orientated. The UK government has recently made a big push towards UK SME's becoming more export orientated. SME's generate nearly £1 in every £2 in the UK private sector. Yet, their support base traditionally has not reflected their needs. Most support used to be designed for larger companies and then scaled down for their SME counter parts. Thankfully, now times are changing. Custom designed support for SME's is becoming more widely available. My part focused around the need for business mentoring and Know How. I usually take a problem /solution approach to my talks. I find by focusing on 2 or 3 key problem areas helps the business owners more. In this case the key problems focused on were: 1. Chronic skills shortages. 2. Lack of Know How. And, finally, 3. People development. Over the years these concerns tend to be dominant in all the SME's I have supported.
Traditionally, the talent has preferred the blue chip sector. To be fair the blue chips do know how to attract and retain some of the best talent. They spend a lot of time and money on understanding the needs of the talent coming through the pipeline. The larger companies make significant investments in learning about the changing needs of their talent. For example, Generation X, Generation Y, Millennials, Baby Boomer's, etc. have custom designed working conditions.
This simply isn't the case for SME's. To give you an example, during my A'Levels. I used to help out a small specialist business looking to scale internationally. They were continuously looking for new talent. Yet, they would struggle to attract high calibre talent for no other reason that they were a small company. This limited their capacity to scale. It also hindered their ability to take advantage of global opportunities available to them. This has been the expereince of most ambitious growing SME's I have come across over the last 25 or so years.
There seems to be a shift starting to take place since the recent down turn. Now new graduates are starting to see the benefits the holistic development SME's offer as attractive. They are starting to appreciate the accelerated growth a growing SME can offer. I look forward to seeing this development as the new norm.
A common concerns for SME's is know how . Know how is usually seen as the tacit knowledge embedded in the business. This means the unarticulated expertise need to be externalised and developed for the benefit of the business. This is usually one of the most difficult concerns for any business. In the case of a growing business this becomes an even greater concern. How to continuously up date and up grade their existing know how to meet the changing needs of their target market is a key concern. If this know how is not capitalised on then the growing SME is likely to experience failure from over expansion. This occurs when the company scales but does not grow.
Another concern for SME's is how to acquire know how. A common way is to hire an expert in their field. They then introduce their know how into the business. However, synergising them into the existing business setting tends to be problematic. For example, a company is looking to grow into a new market so they hire a professional with 20 years expereince. This person has the know how they are looking for. Yet, the results for some reason do not seem to be the ones intended. Here the social dynamics of the company and synergising the professional's know how tend to be key concerns.
Traditionally most of the learning and development in SME's happens informally. This social learning and peer support environment is a significant reason why SME's tend to be more innovative than their larger counter parts. However, in most SME's this environment is not organised. This makes the learning ad hoc and unstructured. In other words, some times the learning and development will take place and then for long periods of time it may or may not. For example, a manager will generally support his/ her staff develop the skills required for their roles. Here the distance between the staff and the manager is low due to the informal work environment. Which helps with the knowledge flows. However, the manager may be so tied up that it is very difficult to offer this support as and when it is needed. This does led to frustration and lowers staff morale.
In this environment it is difficult for the SME to scale and capitalise on the opportunities in its target market. The staff feel they are over stretched and the additional work load may be too much. Therefore, a barrier to growth.
Business mentoring as a support service primarily focuses on capacity building. For instance, an employee who has worked with the SME for five years as the lead salesperson has been asked to set up the marketing side. However, she has no experience of marketing. She does not understand where to start or how to prioritise the risks. Working with a business mentor can help her and the business to develop this capacity for the new role. Unlike a professional coach the business mentor brings a knowledge base to the support role. This helps the company to build their know how as well as develops the staff at the same time.
The business mentor can also help to ensure there is alignment between the needs of the business and the needs of the employee. This helps both the business and the employee to benefit. This alignment is the add value of an external professional support provider. Please remember most support providers offer mentoring as part of a larger service offering to their clients. For instance, if they are working on a capacity development project with the SME. Business mentoring may be offered as part of the project to help the staff develop their skills and expertise.
In a sector where there is chronic skills shortage. There is need for external know how to help the company and staff develop and grow. Business mentoring as a support service fulfils this need well.
There are two broad types of mentoring. These being internal and external. Internal mentoring is when someone from inside the company itself supports the person. This can be the line manager supporting his staff. This can be the CEO working with a new trainee. This can also be a junior person supporting his manager on his/ her area of expertise. For example, the junior person may understand tech very well. He/ she then helps his/ her manager to understand how to use the tech. Some concerns to be aware of when thinking about internal mentoring are: Office politics, the impact on know how, capacity to offer support and the time allocation.
External mentoring is when the company looks for outside support. Professional support providers tend to work with multiple companies at the same time. This helps them understand the underline needs of the business accurately. For instance, as a business mentor the support provider will be coming across similar concerns in different organisations. This helps them to identify these concerns early in the cycle. Most of the time the SME itself may not be aware it has these concerns. Part of the support service is also to help the SME to identify the concerns embedded in their business. Some concerns to be aware of are the quality of the support, the delivery methods and their relevance to the business, understanding what the ROI is before a commitment is made.
These broad types of mentoring are broken into the 3 categories. These being vertical, horizontal and reverse. This means internal and external mentoring can be offered in these ways.
Vertical Mentoring. This is the more traditional way of mentoring. Where you have an expert who makes him/ herself available to the the mentee - also know as Guru mentoring. Here the Guru mentor exposes the mentee to his/ her industry expereince and know how. This usually takes a pedagogical form .
Horizontal Mentoring. The prime focus here is new knowledge generation. This means the tacit knowledge of the mentee plays a significant role in the learning process. It is an andragogy based approach. Most professional support providers will use this approach in some form.
Reverse Mentoring. This is when you have a junior person support a more senior person. Common examples are technology related. Where you have millennials supporting their managers in how to use facebook and twitter.
".. great seminal paper on Mentoring support"
Founder - East London Export Club