Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive Success: Minding other peoples' business

Asking for a mentor's help isn't an admission of failure, says Lisa Ford. Photo / Jason Oxeham
Asking for a mentor's help isn't an admission of failure, says Lisa Ford. Photo / Jason Oxeham

Are you more of a Gordon Ramsay or a Mother Teresa?

Lisa Ford, general manager of Business Mentors New Zealand, says the mentors on its books generally fall into those two categories - though the Gordon Ramsay types dial back the expletives, she adds.

"A great mentor is a great listener," says Ford.

"It's somebody who can listen to the issue and actually see the root of the problem.

"It's not always a business problem.

"It can be, actually, the motivation and capability of the actual business owner.
"We have some pretty tough discussions out there. Really tough discussions that you wouldn't have with your bank manager by any means."

Ford says many business owners adopt a strategy of keeping their head in the sand, but the role of the mentor is to get some action on those difficult business decisions.

The not-for-profit organisation has been matching struggling businesses with experienced business know-how for more than 25 years.

Founded and supported in its early days by Sir James Fletcher and Woolrest founder Bill Hall, Business Mentors was a way for corporate New Zealand to lend its knowledge and support to small businesses, says Ford.

It has grown into a country-wide network of 2000 business mentors who have collectively helped more than 70,000 businesses and not-for-profits.

In a nation of small businesses, help from Business Mentors has often been the first step for besieged business owners working their way through a problem.

"I like to think that we're the people that SMEs reach out to when they've not asked for help before," says Ford.

"We're a low risk, low cost opportunity to reach out and ask for help for the first time, without having to jump through too many hoops, without feeling intimidated.

"Unfortunately, most of our small business owners are, dare I say it, they're men and their saying 'I need help' actually means 'I'm failing'.

"In fact, what we're trying to do moving forward is actually normalise mentoring to say: you're not failing by reaching out and getting a mentor."

For a small fee, help is offered for 12 months, although the majority of the action happens in the first six months, with the next six months being more about maintaining momentum.

We're a low risk, low cost opportunity to reach out and ask for help for the first time.

Business Mentors isn't a replacement for professional business services, Ford says, but it can help spot problems and direct business owners to ways of addressing issues.

"We're the first people to say, actually, you need to organise an accountant.

"If you don't understand your financials you need to outsource that."

Ford has a degree of empathy for smaller businesses. Back in her native England, she ran a small aviation industry consulting business with her husband.

Emigrating to New Zealand 11 years ago, she saw many of the problems she'd encountered in the United Kingdom were amplified in this country.

"One of my surprises was coming here and realising how many small businesses there were compared to the UK, which is obviously a whole different corporate environment, but realising that wow, the backbone of New Zealand is SMEs."

While Business Mentors is built around minding other people's businesses, the focus has expanded to helping start-ups and more recently not-for-profit organisations.

That evolution was born out of customer demand, she says, but if Business Mentors wants to still be around in another 25 years, it has to adapt to meet the market.

You're seeing the landscape change as the younger generation is coming through to say 'we want to make money for good'.

It does mean the range of mentors expanding to match the needs of the organisations knocking on Business Mentors' door.

Ford says governance experience is a "must have" for mentors in the charitable sector.
While these organisations generally need help with the same processes as a business - finance, health and safety, volunteer or employment agreements, marketing - the mentoring usually extends to the board level.

To mentor successfully in this area requires someone with charitable sector experience who can work in an environment where making decisions on the spot isn't an option, but often requires consultation or waiting until the next board meeting, she says.

Possibly, that's one for the Mother Teresa's rather than the Gordon Ramsay's.

Another trend is the rise of the social enterprise, where profits go to charity, says Ford.

"You're seeing the landscape change as the younger generation is coming through to say 'we want to make money for good'."

The mentors are also changing to reflect different business demands.

While mentors have typically had a "tinge of grey at the temples", with the maturity and experience to give back, the organisation is seeing more young people keen on mentoring, especially in social media and online marketing, says Ford.

"We adapt to the marketplace all the time.

"I think in the past we've been seen as the grey-haired men that turn up at your door to mentor you, which still has its space, but I get great joy when people call up and say 'I'd like a woman mentor' and I say 'fantastic, I've got great dynamic women mentors who can help you through this'."

- NZ Herald

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