HR & Management

Strong mentors: The secret weapon of savvy SME owners

7 min read

08 October 2015

Five million SMEs could double their chances of increasing their turnover by using mentors.

The well-documented failure rate for startups and smaller businesses often leaves entrepreneurs pondering the question “How do I ensure my company’s survival?” into the small hours.

In my experience, being a successful leader isn’t about having all of the answers, or for that matter, spending all of your capital on pricey consultants to answer burning questions. 

For a small business owner, cultivating strong relationships with trusted mentors – or implementing a mentoring programme among employees – can be one of the best investments he or she can make. 

And I’m not alone in thinking this: according to entrepreneur and former Dragons’ Den panellist Theo Paphitis, almost 50 per cent of startups fail in the first two years partly because they don’t know where to go for funding or lack other critical knowledge.

In addition, the power of mentorship is widely leveraged within enterprises with more than 70 per cent of companies in the Fortune 500 now offering formal mentoring programmes to their employees. In the UK, 75 per cent of companies use formal coaching programmes, a more short-term form of mentoring, as a development tool for their staff.

It’s now time for smaller organisations to reap the benefits too.

Research suggests almost five million small UK businesses could double their chances of increasing their turnover by using mentors. In fact, smaller businesses with mentor relationships are twice as likely to report an increase in turnover compared to those that do not.

Mentors can bring a breadth of skills, knowledge and real world experience. Tapping into the expertise of an experienced entrepreneur or enterprise business leader, can help provide a whole new perspective and help leaders focus on what’s most important. 

Read more about how mentors can help a business:

Small business owners often don’t have access to formal management or leadership training, or to senior colleagues who can be called on for advice. Many people in larger organisations may take these resources for granted, but continually benefit from them. 

In talking to our small business customers, they often speak about how, when it comes down to choosing investors, it isn’t just about the capital they offer, but the advice and experience those investors provide can be even more important. 

However, acknowledging the importance of mentors is just the first step for small businesses. 

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The next step is to help employees at all levels in the company find mentors that they can engage with. While small, tight-knit teams can be brilliant for tackling seemingly insurmountable challenges, it can present a real challenge for workers who need a fresh point of view, or to stress-test new ideas that might be controversial. 

I’m often asked my thoughts on those fostering the best mentoring relationships with women – particularly as women represent a minority in startups and in the tech sector overall. 

Personally, I’m a mentor to several women, as well as men. I believe the success of the relationship depends on chemistry and a commitment on both sides. You both have to share a common professional passion, of course, but there has to be a genuine personal connection as well. And in this regard, the gender of a mentor is secondary. 

It’s important to acknowledge that we all need different mentors for different stages of our careers. Smaller organisations are often fast-evolving, so getting multiple perspectives and facilitating a range of mentors for individuals is particularly important in helping employees adapt and thrive in a changing business.

A mentor can also help people shed a new light on the most challenging issues – whether it’s a professional short-coming or a business problem that requires a tough decision. According to mentoring guru David Carter, a mentor’s “passionate disinterest” in your business is something consultants or internal conversations with colleagues just can’t offer. 

When creating a more formal mentoring programme it’s important to keep in mind that mentors aren’t there to replace training, or to teach hard skills. But they can help give people the insights to focus on key areas for professional development as well as practical advice such as thriving in a particular role, sharpening business strategy or growing a business.

It’s important to note that a mentor is not there to do the “heavy-lifting”, but instead to help people make more informed, better decisions. Think of the mentor like a personal trainer, imparting advice for self-improvement which helps the mentee get better outcomes.

I think it’s fair to say that mentoring is a “no-brainer” for smaller organisations, whether it’s the owner of a start-up looking for the essential guidance they need to ensure a decent night’s sleep – or for more established small businesses looking to empower teams to succeed no matter how quickly the business is evolving. 

Let’s hope that in a few years, the statistics around big business’ commitment to mentoring are mirrored in smaller companies too.

Chris Ciauri is senior vice president for Salesforce EMEA.