Long White Beards are not Mandatory

Mentor: noun. An experienced and trusted adviser. A person who gives a younger and less experienced colleague help and advice over a period of time, especially at work or school.
First used in the modern sense in the 18th Century, the word comes from Homer’s Odyssey: when Odysseus left for the Trojan War he left his old, trusted friend Mentor in charge of his palace and his son, Telemachus.

I wrote recently about the entrepreneur’s journey mirroring the classic ‘hero’s journey’ in fiction. That’s certainly true of the mentor: there are any number of examples in popular culture. Star Wars offers us Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also mentor this Jedi is… The Lion King has Rafiki, Buffy the Vampire Slayer relies on Giles and, of course, Harry Potter has Dumbledore.

These mentors tick all the archetypal boxes: older, wiser, there when they are needed and – in plenty of cases – a long, white beard.

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The idea of the mentor also runs through business and – as an entrepreneur – you’re going to learn one thing very quickly. You will need someone to talk to. Your accountant, solicitor and bank manager will all no doubt be splendid people: however, they are not running a business like yours and your priorities are not their priorities. Your partner’s priorities aren’t your priorities either. The only person who understands is another entrepreneur: for better or worse, you have joined a special club.
I just wonder if mentoring in British business is working as well as it could…

Without wishing to sound old – but policemen definitely do look younger, don’t they? -many of today’s new entrepreneurs are younger. And I think that creates a problem in the traditional UK model of the business mentor, too many of whom – as I’m writing this on International Women’s Day – have been male, pale and stale.

That is not to criticise organisations like Business Link, or to denigrate the work that solicitors/accountants/bank managers do. It is simply to recognise that young entrepreneurs are swimming in a different pond: there must be a gulf between someone who’s just discovered Google docs and thinks its pretty nifty and someone who communicates, banks and shops via WeChat. (Sorry, it’s China’s answer to Facebook, except that it is much more than FB, its owner Tencent is worth more than FB and will shortly be making inroads in the West.)
So let’s dispense with the idea that the metaphorical long white beard is a requirement: I see no reason why a successful entrepreneur of 28 shouldn’t mentor a 24 year old with a start-up.
Interestingly, several of my TAB colleagues do unpaid mentoring work. Speaking to them there is a common thread that runs through the relationships: they like/believe in the person they are mentoring – and they like/believe in the business as well. They’re 50% giving something back and 50% nurturing a business that they believe could become a significant client.

Perhaps it is up to organisations like TAB to take a lead? It’s the Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Tuesday and I would love Philip Hammond to recognise the difference coaching and mentoring within the business community could make to the country’s future. But as one of his colleagues famously dismissed entrepreneurs as “fat, lazy and off to play golf” I won’t hold my breath…
But this really is another area why we need to start asking ‘why not?’ Thinking out loud – and hoping my colleagues will respond positively – why shouldn’t TAB have an event specifically for entrepreneurs under 30?

Let me now return to the hero’s/entrepreneur’s journey.
So our hero has pushed his breakfast round his plate, decided there has to be a better way, resisted the siren call of corporate security, explained the risks to his partner and taken the plunge.

Five, 10, 15 years down the line it is all very different. The problems are not those of a start-up, they’re the problems of success. He now employs people; the retired guy who did his books two days a week has given way to a finance director; most importantly, his family is beginning to see the benefits of the gamble he took. But he still needs support, guidance and someone who truly understands.

This, of course, is where TAB plays such a key role for so many entrepreneurs. No longer one mentor, but seven – and still not a long white beard in sight… Not only that, you learn as much from mentoring your colleagues as you do from them mentoring and supporting you.

I’m a passionate advocate of peer-to-peer coaching and the mentoring that goes with it. I think it has the potential to make a significant difference to our economy. And as I’ll outline in a fortnight’s time, I don’t see any limits to its applications – even for the biggest businesses.

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