Armadillo Executive Chairman, Chris Thurling, spoke to the NatWest Business Hub about his passion for mentoring, how it helped his own business take off and the benefits it can bring to both the mentee and mentor.
“Building a business is hard, but the right mentor can make a big difference,” says Vikas Shah MBE. It’s something the CEO of Swiscot Group and an honorary professor at Univesity of Manchester knows well, having spent 15 years mentoring.
“As hard as it is, the challenges in business are pretty common – hiring, firing, financials,” he says. “But when you’ve never done them before, it can feel like the end of the world. To have experienced people to turn to who have been through this helps you to focus on what you do best and allows you to focus on growth and development.”
A good mentor can also make it easier to pursue that growth. Keira O’Mara, director of baby products retailer Mama Designs, says: “You can bounce ideas off someone who has lots of experience and you do things that, without support, might have felt too risky.”
Making that relationship work takes time and effort, so we asked former mentees who are now mentors to share their tips.
Some mentor relationships arise organically, while others are formally set up via charities or industry bodies.
Rachida Benamar founded stationery and lifestyle brand Rama Publishing three years ago and says that she could not have achieved success without mentoring.
“My first mentor was a girl I met at a coffee shop. I was literally sitting with my head in my hands and she asked if I was OK,” says Benamar. “She had started her own business, and she started WhatsApping me with encouragement and guidance, filling me in on practicalities, such as start-up loans – the stuff you don’t think about if you’re at the very start and you’re all wrapped up in your business with no clarity of thought.”
While finding a mentor organically can be a fortuitous and natural way to start such a relationship, Shah urges caution. “There are people who do mentoring to become paid execs or to get some equity,” he explains. “There are also people who become mentors and coaches because they have been on a course, but they don’t really have the life experience. So do your research and make sure the person you reach out to is a good fit and will be a good help.”
O’Mara agrees that finding a mentor whose experience gels well with your business should be your primary concern: “If you have a product-based business, you should consider whether the mentor ‘gets’ your product. For example, are they the target audience? Or have they ever been the target audience?
“As a mentor I always do my research before the first session so I know the background of the business and the business owner. It sounds obvious, but I have worked with mentors who have not done this and noticed a big difference.”
Many mentees gain so much from the relationship that they go on to become mentors themselves, creating a virtuous circle of business benefits.
Chris Thurling is one such person. He currently works as executive chairman for customer relationship marketing specialist Armadillo and provides mentoring to creative start-ups.
Each time I help mentees, I get to share their feeling of excitement that each new success brings, knowing I was part of it
Dr Jenny Grant Rankin, author and lecturer
“Looking back on my first business, there was a definite correlation between me working with a mentor on a regular basis and the business really taking off,” he says. “Not only did he open doors that I wouldn’t have been able to, he helped steer me through challenges, helped me to build my network beyond what I thought was possible and diverted me away from potentially fatal errors.”
A mentor is no guarantee against errors of judgement, but they are an extra safeguard. Says Thurling: “As an entrepreneur, it’s important to make mistakes – you can’t learn otherwise. However, there is a limit, and that’s where I believe mentors are most crucial to start-ups.”
After Benamar’s success as a mentee, she went on to mentor a young woman through the Diana Award. She says mentees must be ready to work.
“If the mentee doesn’t keep in touch then the relationship will start eroding. The mentor is busy with thousands of things and it’s not their responsibility to stay in touch with you.
“If you want to have a good relationship with your mentor then manners matter, and be careful not to be greedy with their time.”
Benamar adds: “I tell them to have questions prepared when they come to a Skype session so we don’t waste time. I don’t stick rigidly to that, but it’s good for them to practice planning and knowing what they want to get out of the session.”
“The environment is important for a mentoring session,” says Emma Slater, MD of media agency Wavemaker North. She is part of Bloom North, an organisation that provides mentoring and support to women working in media and communications.
“You need to put thought into where and how the session is run,” says Slater. “Do you need to be in a meeting room? Or would a walk outside be better? Or over a glass of wine or cup of coffee? Different areas of discussion can call for different environments.
“As we’re based in Manchester city centre, I do most of my mentor sessions with mentees walking around the canals in Castlefield.”
Done well, this kind of professional relationship can be as inspiring for the mentor as it is for their mentee.
Author and lecturer Dr Jenny Grant Rankin, who has written about the value of mentors in academia, says: “When I look back on my career, I find the times I grew the most were when a mentor provided opportunities, guidance, and encouragement to stretch my skills.
“Each time I help mentees, I get to share their feeling of excitement that each new success brings, knowing I was part of it. It also reminds me how far I have come, and it feels good to know I am bettering our field.”
Whether it’s in business, academia or any other sector, the right mentor and mentee pairing can benefit both.