This article was published in a Business Partners newsletter of 24 November 2015, and appears here as a guest post by Christo Botes, then Executive Director of Business Partners Ltd. Business Partners Ltd is an African risk based Finance house and Venture capitalist focused on SME’s. The company has a mentors arm staffed by experienced specialists, and co-manages the South African SME toolkit.
There is no shortage of business advice in the world. It comes in the form of consultants, coaches, advisors, professors, management gurus and self-help celebrities. Each has its place, but for Christo Botes, executive director of Business Partners Limited (BUSINESS/PARTNERS), there is a special breed of business adviser who are worth their weight in gold: the business mentor.
For Botes, the distinction between a business mentor and other forms of business advisers is subtle, because a mentor can play any number of roles, sometimes that of strategic adviser, technical expert or business consultant, and sometimes all of them at once. But the key characteristics of a mentor has to do with their experience, attitude and approach. They practice the science and the art of business, not merely the science, says Botes.
An ordinary business consultant usually has a clinical approach, coming into a business to solve a specific problem and impart formal, defined pieces of knowledge or procedural know-how. A mentor can do this, but also strives to impart wisdom based not on textbook learning but on his or her experience.
The ordinary consultant keeps within his scope of work, and his interest stretches as far as the settlement of his invoice. A mentor can also work with a defined plan and for a fee, but gains his satisfaction from seeing his client succeed as a result of his work. Even if he is brought in to implement a technical process in a business, he does so with passion, and with a broader view to empowering the entrepreneur and the business.
A consultant can be a fresh-faced graduate with an MBA. A mentor can also have an MBA, but can only be someone with experience, or “scars and medals” earned in the real business world, says Botes.
Some consultants aim to create dependency so that a once-off business intervention turns into easy retainer income. For a mentor, however, success means being able to walk away from a business with the entrepreneur standing solidly on his own two feet.
Botes refers to one mentor who believes that if his intervention does not result in improved profits of at least eight times his fee, he has not succeeded.
A consultant tends to work on a problem in the business. A mentor also deals with business problems, but works mainly on the person behind the business, the entrepreneur. An experienced mentor knows that most of the problems in an owner-managed business stem from the quirks and weaknesses of the owner.
For example, most entrepreneurs tend to gravitate towards their own field of expertise and neglect all the other aspects of their business. “A production man who does not feel comfortable with finances tends to overcompensate by running a tight workshop, but the books are a mess. A good mentor will set about turning him into a more balanced entrepreneur,” says Botes.
Clearly, while consultants are common, good mentors are rare. They are not produced by business schools, but are forged through years of experience in the business world where they have not only themselves succeeded, but have developed a passion to see other entrepreneurs succeed.
Any business owner who comes across such an individual would do well to build and maintain a relationship with him or her, says Botes.
But he warns that just because mentorship has qualitative aspects to it that are difficult to define, it does not mean that the relationship between the mentor and entrepreneur should be fuzzy and vague.
There is nothing wrong with meeting socially for a heart-to-heart talk with a retired business owner, but if an entrepreneur wants the mentor to do a serious business intervention, a formal, clear business agreement works best, says Botes. The agreement should include a scope of work, a time line, measurable outcomes, and clearly defined tasks for the mentor as well as the business owner.
Because good mentors are intensely invested in the success of the businesses they help, they do not easily tolerate their advice being ignored by a stubborn business owner. Botes tells of a mentor who, when he works for a success fee, insists on a clause giving him the right to walk away from the business if the entrepreneur does not listen to his advice.
It is often useful to have a facilitator who can get the relationship between the mentor and the entrepreneur off to a good start. BUSINESS/PARTNERS plays this part when it pairs mentors from its pool of 360 with businesses.
Botes says he has seen time and again that when the arrangement between the mentor and entrepreneur is clear, and when the human chemistry between the two works, the results can be spectacular. Businesses on the verge of bankruptcy turn around, and are often propelled to a whole new level.
He also often finds that, long after the first intervention arranged by BUSINESS/PARTNERS, the relationship lasts and grows, with the mentor sometimes becoming a board member, sometimes even a shareholder, and very often a long-term confidant and friend.
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