Wither mentoring?

Excuse the pun but business mentoring isn’t going anywhere at present.

My guess is that few of you are sad enough to have spent the Christmas holidays reading ‘Demand for mentoring among SMEs’, the recent research paper from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

So let me help…..because, surprisingly perhaps, I did read it.

Let’s start by stating what we all know. SMEs make it tough for those hoping to help them. According to this report only 34% of SMEs actually sought external advice although 69% were aware of business mentors. Only 5% of SMEs had used a mentor in the last 12 months and indeed overall usage is declining despite Governments best efforts.

Ironically this is against a backcloth where a third of SMEs reported that they had experienced a time when they would have benefitted from a mentor, yet they had never used one. The reports says: ‘ the reasons for this relate to a lack of understanding of the benefits of mentoring, not knowing how to find one, and there is also a degree of mistrust and a reluctance to engage an external advisor.’ And yet the majority of those that have used mentoring agreed they had achieved better or faster outcomes by using one!

Having recently engaged with the Banks about helping them to provide business support to their business clients perhaps one of the most interesting research findings is that Mentorsme.co.uk which was set up in 2010 by the five main UK Banks had only been heard of by 4% of SMEs and an even smaller percentage (1%) had actually even looked at their website. Talking to the Bank executives I think they recognise it has failed and has, in effect, fallen off their radar despite on-going Government support for the programme.

The other key fact for me that emerges from this report is the characteristics required to be a business mentor. I think this is a core issue as, in my experience, all too often traditional business mentors simply do not have these qualities (and perhaps this is at the heart of the problem). To quote from the research: ‘The most important characteristic was proven success in business, which 39 per cent considered to be essential. This was followed by having specific skills for developing business (35 per cent essential), having specific skills for running a business (34 per cent essential), having networks of contacts (28 per cent essential), not charging fees (28 per cent essential) and having experience of the same sector (26 per cent essential).’

So, in a nutshell.

On the supply side we need to provide business people (not the traditional mentors or the Banks relationship managers) who have proven experience, knowledge, expertise and a track record of success. These are people who can deal with entrepreneurs on a peer to peer level. At Executive Alumni we think we have a rather elegant solution to this problem.

To stimulate the demand side SMEs need to be educated about the benefits of mentoring and, more importantly, helped to access it. Government cannot drive this or certainly not alone. It needs a business Champion, an organisation that genuinely supports entrepreneurship and wants its brand to be associated with supporting SMEs and UK Plc.

The question is who will be that Champion?