Business mentoring: schemes vs. serendipity

February 1, 2013 by
Filed under: Enterprise 

A senior bod in the think-tank world once said to me he’d throw himself out of the window if he heard that someone had started another mentorship scheme.

I wonder how then he would have reacted to yesterday’s announcement by BIS that the drive to recruit small business mentors through the Get Mentoring initiative had reached its target of 15,000 volunteers. Probably with an exasperated sigh. But why should a national mentorship scheme prompt such a reaction? Isn’t it a given that it’s useful to have someone experienced to look up to and receive advice from, regardless of the context? The answer, of course, is yes. The question is whether the majority of mentorship schemes actually do this at all well.

As it happens, the Sutton Trust yesterday released new research findings which indicate that certain types of mentoring can be worse than no mentoring at all (hat tip to colleague Sam Thomas for the link). Their analysis shows that the impact of mentoring varies widely, but that on average it is likely only to have a small impact on educational attainment. In many cases, mentors drop out of programmes soon after establishing contact with a student, thereby damaging their academic chances. Moreover, the benefit that some mentors bring is rarely sustained once the partnerships come to an end.

Academic mentoring is no doubt a very different ball game to business mentoring. Yet the same concerns exist for both. Throughout the many interviews we’ve undertaken with young entrepreneurs, we’ve come across numerous instances of bad mentoring experiences. This was often because the business mentor that was matched to the entrepreneur came from a completely different industry background. One social entrepreneur who was establishing a venture to support projects in the developing world told of his surprise at being matched with an ex- director of Transport for London. We also encountered various reports of significant personality and mindset differences between the mentor and mentee, created in part because of a wide age-gap between the two.

Over the course of my time at the RSA, I’ve come to realise that meaningful social connections – something mentoring has to be founded on – can seldom be forged through basic matchmaking schemes. To put people in a room and hope they’ll get on, see eye to eye and develop a meaningful lasting relationship is naïve and idealistic. Of course some people like it; there are those who take easily to such formal networking schemes. But for all those who can rely on rough and ready connections, there are many more who depend upon more intelligent matches to find an appropriate advisor. The likes of Business in the Community and the Social Innovation Camp have good models which show that this is achievable – hopefully the Get Mentoring initiative can learn something from them.

Still, on the basis of several discussions with young entrepreneurs and experts in the field, my sense is that organic, informal connections are the best way for budding young entrepreneurs to get the information and advice they need to make their venture a success. Creating the ‘shared spaces’ where those kind of natural connections can occur should therefore be a priority in the coming years. How you actually do that is another question.

Buildings like the RSA are good convenors. Likewise, places such as the Hub can spark useful serendipitous encounters. Another good example, although slightly more formalised, is that of entrepreneur supper clubs. The Un-Restaurant organised by Lime&Tonic, for instance, brings company founders together to socailise and thereby indirectly forge useful connections. Perhaps something similar could be organised for young entrepreneurs.

It’s food for thought.


  • Grrr8

    This is essentially correct. I’ve been both a mentor and a mentee with mixed feelings about both experiences. It’s important for both parties to understand and disclose their incentives/ motivations. If a mentor’s primary interest is to get his/her mentee to follow his advice, this may lead to unsuitable advice being given. Similarly if a mentee is looking primarily for contacts and information from a mentor, the mentor may feel somewhat used. Personal chemistry bridges a lot of these gaps. Besides this, I think both parties need to keep some distance from each other, possibly establish objectives of the relationship upfront and be willing to raise issues and even walk away if things don’t work.

  • Louis M M Coiffait

    I’ve had a pretty poor experience as the recipient of BITC mentoring, being left alone / unsupported with a mentor from a very different industry. Similarly my experience mentoring for the Prince’s Trust hasn’t been great either with poor volunteer management.

  • Andy Gibson

    Thanks for this Benedict. I’ve been involved in a few mentoring schemes over the years and for the most part they have been as poor as your think-tank colleague suggests, a bad hotch-potch of forced relationships and mismatched needs. What is much more important is building a network around a project, a set of people with an interest in seeing it grow. All the people who have advised me over the years with Mindapples have been loosely supportive of the idea or of me personally, but there’s been nothing formal, just people I know I can ask for help if something specific comes up.

    What’s much harder is to find a mentor who wants to develop an individual entrepreneur and has the skills, experience and time to do that. Those relationships can’t be forced, and when we find them we are lucky. The wrong relationships can be very destructive, making someone feel they are “doing it all wrong” when in fact they are operating in a different market and with different values than the person directing them.

    I am also particularly sceptical about the schemes offered by management consulting houses that claim to be able to help develop social enterprises. They mostly seem to involve already busy entrepreneurs providing free training to highly-paid junior consultants in how social enterprise actually works and what’s happening in their chosen market. Frankly if consulting groups want me to educate their staff they should be paying me a good day rate rather than asking me to fill in forms for the privilege.

    What I think is more interesting for the RSA though is that all my conclusions about this leads me to think the best thing organisations like the RSA can do is run informal, regular meetups where people without much experience or influence can meet people with both and share their passions. The more people we all meet, the more good connections come out of it.

    You can’t force coincidence, but you can create the conditions that make it more likely. What’s difficult is making the business case for running informal networks like this when they don’t deliver the nice headline figures and predictable ROI of the “schemes”…

    • Benedict Dellot

      Thanks Andy. I think one of the reasons why the RSA’s social entrepreneurs network seems to be popular is in large part due to its informality. Nothing substantial is required from either the people seeking advice or the others in the network who may be able to help them.