Management & Strategy

Getting a mentor

Talk to anyone who has started their own business and they will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is the loneliness of steering the ship yourself. For many, business mentoring offers the ideal solution.

If you own your own business, the number of employees you have is largely irrelevant if you don’t have anyone to advise you, steer your decision-making or develop your skills. It can feel lonely at the top without somebody standing alongside to champion the business with you, and help to push it on to the next level. Business mentoring is designed to address these shortfalls and it can be a highly effective and appropriate strategy for entrepreneurs and business owners.

The best choice for your business

A frequently asked question is whether a mentor should be like you: at the same business stage as you are, or a different one. An older and wiser businessperson with plenty of experience in business development and problem solving can be invaluable in helping sole operators and entrepreneurs clarify ideas and overcome hurdles. 

However, just as valid – but offering a different kind of experience – is peer-to-peer mentoring, whereby the entrepreneur finds someone working in a similar field, or running a business that is at the same stage in its life cycle. While it can sometimes be difficult to decipher who is the mentor in this situation, this approach can provide an equally effective support system.

Tamsin Fox-Davies, senior development manager at marketing company Constant Contact, has experienced both of these approaches and these days she acts as a mentor herself, as well as being a board member for the Association of Business Mentors. Before joining Constant Contact, Tamsin ran her own business, but she found herself struggling to resolve business development issues alone.

A problem shared 

Tamsin was mentored by a former contact – a man with complementary experience who had developed a number of ventures himself – and she developed her ability to visualise where she wanted to be and how she wanted her business to evolve. The mentoring sessions also helped her understand the steps she needed to achieve those ambitions. “It allowed me to more clearly see the progression of going from where I was to where I wanted to be,” she says.

On the other hand, working with two women who were much closer to her in age, experience and field – her peer group mentors – helped her with some important specifics, such as clarifying her business case. Her mentors worked with her on presenting products and services so that they were profitable, effective and attractive. Tamsin found this process easier to negotiate with sympathetic and like-minded marketing professionals. “The great thing was I could be really honest and open. There were no stupid questions and I gained insightful answers to questions that were really bothering me,” Tamsin says.

“Both experiences had a very positive effect,” she adds. “I got to see how both sets of people operated in a much more intimate way and that made me look at myself as a businessperson, and it really encouraged me to step up and improve the way I did things.”

But does the mentoring process open doors? Tamsin certainly thinks so. “It will obviously depend on who they are, as to whether their contacts are relevant to your business issues. Good mentors introduce you to people and many are quite generous with their introductions. But you have to be ready to listen and take advantage”, she says.

Finding a mentor

When it comes to finding a mentor, the Association of Business Mentors, local Chambers of Commerce or other business groups, and specialist groups like Mentorsme.co.uk or Nesta’s Creative Business Mentor network, are all good starting points. Asking trusted advisers like bank managers or accountants for recommendations, or approaching former colleagues in business, can also yield positive results.

“You can have a really positive experience with people who provide mentoring services for free, or with those who charge a fee,” says Tamsin. “What I would say is that paying for mentoring services can mean that you value the experience all the more,” she adds.

Tamsin stresses that business owners know their services, customers and companies better than anyone and should be prepared to decide for themselves whether they take advice or not. That said, as a mentor, she favours the clear setting of goals and objectives, as well as a regular commitment to meeting up and following through any action plans. “As a mentor, I’ve found it very helpful to have a really clear objective, to make my mentees focus on what they want out of the situation”, she says.

Above all, Tamsin believes that you need to be very clear about what you want out of the relationship. “A mentor can provide great context to your business issues and decisions, push you out of your comfort zone and introduce you to people who can assist with areas that need development. But you need to be able to trust them and you need to be able to commit to the process of mentoring.”

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK