Mastering the art
of business mentoring

If you have been around the business coaching and mentoring market, you will know it is a bit like the wild west out there, comments Christine Nicholson, business mentor and consultant at Nicholson Hall Consulting

Anyone can call themselves a business mentor or coach, and many business owners and directors do not know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Often one bad experience can be carried through a long career and several businesses. Yet the benefits of good mentoring are well documented.

Research and surveys prove that having a mentor is important to success. Some 80% of CEOs said they received some form of mentorship, and 93% of successful start-ups said mentorship was instrumental to success. The business failure rate is surprisingly high, with 30% of new businesses not surviving two years and less than half making it past five. With a mentor involved, around 70% of businesses break through the five-year anniversary.

Christine Nicholson, business mentor and consultant, Nicholson Hall Consulting

Stepping up

It was this background that made me step up to the challenge of a master’s level qualification in Business Mentoring through ILM. I needed to test my practice as a business mentor and continue my learning experience. My clients agreed when they nominated me for a Business Mentor of the Year Award, which I was proud to win in 2020. So, what difference has it made?

Mentoring means my clients are tapping into the knowledge and experience of someone who has been there and done it before. I am their ‘critical friend’, especially if they are so close to the business that they cannot see the issues clearly. In my field of expertise – succession and exit planning – this is more important as business owners could be leaving significant amounts of money on the table through bad exit experiences.

Most business owners only sell one business, their own, and if they do not know what to expect on the journey they cannot prepare properly. Around 80% of businesses never sell, and the biggest issues involve lack of preparation.

An experienced and trusted adviser

I know from personal experience how being at the head of a business can feel like a lonely and empty existence. On the one hand, no one tells you what to do, where to be and whether you are doing it right; on the other, you do not know what you do not know, it can be hard not having someone to bounce ideas off, and when it is all getting really challenging, it can help to have a sympathetic and unjudging ear to listen.

When my mentors got involved, the feeling of isolation was the first thing that disappeared. One of the most rewarding things about business mentoring is seeing clients regain confidence and starting to thrive in their business again, and it brings back the memories of my own position.

The definition of a mentor is ‘an experienced and trusted adviser’ – and I am conscious that this is valuable to both the business owner and the business’s stakeholders.

Mentors can become a bit like a priest in confessional; equally, they can give some tough love when needed! In the privileged role of trusted advisor, it is great to pass on valuable knowledge and insight, enabling better decision making and leadership. When my clients are focused, they track their plans and achieve more.

What to expect – and not to expect

It is probably worth mentioning what you can expect from your mentor and, more importantly, what mentors do NOT do. Mentors provide support, advice and listening – they are facilitators and engage in knowledge transfer. Effective mentors do not take over or do things in your business – that is consulting – but help you become the better business owner quicker than you could ever do it by yourself!

Your chances of success in life and in business are statistically improved by having the right mentor, where valuable connections, timely advice and moral guidance can accelerate your journey to success. A good mentor has been there and done it already – they know your pain!

Inspirational entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey says: "A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself." Having access to someone who has walked in your shoes, who has an impartial view of both your personal life and your business and gives encouragement is worth their weight in gold.

From personal experience, I would have quit on more than one occasion without the support and guidance of my mentors in the past. They gave me moral support, hope and improved confidence that I could continue.

In one business my mentor supported me exiting my company when it was right for me, even though it was earlier than originally planned, allowing me to avoid major burn-out. My mentors are my heroes, and they were the role models for my work as a mentor today.

The ILM7 programme

The ILM7 qualification tested competency in eight areas: understanding self, commitment to self-development, managing contracts, building relationships, enabling insight and learning, outcome and action orientation, use of models and techniques and evaluation.

Evolving your practice to a level of mastery means working more effectively with business owners and senior executives. Outcomes for client include building capacity for progression, managing complex and challenging relationships, working with ambiguity and change – all in a day’s work for most business owners or directors.

The personal benefit of the ILM7 programme was working with a cohort of peers who challenged and exposed each other to their wide variety of practices. Everyone is as unique as their clients, and sharing different approaches and testing each other’s methods lead to great personal development.

The greater self-awareness gained from the study and the cohort was invaluable. It allowed us all to experience what the client feels – and be more empathic as a result. It was hard work, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.