Caitlin Sykes

Your Business editor of the NZ Herald

Small business: Mentoring - Tony Falkenstein

Tony Falkenstein, CEO of Just Water International, is also communication chair of the New Zealand chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation and will be its mentor chair.

Tony Falkenstein, communications chair and incoming mentor chair, Entrepreneurs’ Organisation.
Tony Falkenstein, communications chair and incoming mentor chair, Entrepreneurs’ Organisation.

How are you involved with mentoring?

For the Entrepreneurs' Organisation (EO), mentoring is perhaps the most important part of the organisation. Members are encouraged to be both a mentor and mentee, as there is a lot of learning from both positions. We sign up members to a one-year programme and match them with mentors from either within the EO's ranks or with businesspeople outside the organisation. It's about finding the best match where the mentor and mentee will both learn and grow from the experience.

Personally, I have always been involved with advising, not just with businesses through EO but also with students and other people in business. I always learn a lot from observing how other people operate.

I was the catalyst for establishing New Zealand's first business high school at Onehunga. It opened my eyes to the different learning styles of people, which is one of the things that got me so interested in mentoring.

I used to take 15 business students to New York every second year, as I believe experiential learning is the best method. The students now travel to China every second year for the same purpose.

I was also the catalyst for the AUT Venture Fund, which enables students to run a business while they are studying.

Over the past few years, I have done a lot of mentoring, generally with startups but also businesses that have been going for a while and with owners who feel like they have no more ideas on how to grow. I can often distinguish the forest from the trees. Business is a game of chess, and you just have to work out the best way to get to checkmate.

Why is mentoring important, particularly in relation to small businesses?

Experience makes a big difference; there is nothing wrong with a few grey hairs. However, small businesses, or any business person, shouldn't rely on one mentor - they should learn from everyone they meet.

Often small business owners have big ideas and ambitions but they lack the insight and experience to see how to get there so they just need some ideas to help. That's where mentors can really prove their worth.

What makes a good mentor?

Listening is the biggest factor in being a good mentor. Also it is not a question of saying 'here's what you need to do', but more of asking the question, 'what would happen if you did this?'.

What the mentor has to be careful about is that they don't become the solution, and the mentee abrogates the responsibility for success in the business to the mentor. It is the mentee's business, and they have to set the goals. Often a time limit for the mentorship is good. In the EO Mentorship Programme, it's for 12 months. This is long enough to foster a strong relationship but also allows for both the mentor and mentee to part ways and follow the direction they now need to for continued growth.

What are some of the benefits small business owners can gain from being mentored?

Obviously mentors will be giving their experience, even if it's from another industry. Understanding others' experiences is important to give perspective to your own situation. Often startups are overly excited about their business idea but lack the forethought to consider some of the hurdles involved in starting a business. This is where a mentor can be invaluable.

Probably my best advice as a mentor to startups is to tell them 'stop and think before going headfirst into creating a business'. A lot of people want to create the next 'big' business but not many really think about why their idea is unique. They need to come to me with questions already answered - questions like: why am I creating this business? Who am I selling to? Why do they want what I'm selling? They also need sustainable resources to get the project off the ground.

What can be some of the challenges for small business owners in mentoring relationships?

Business owners often think they know everything, and can't be told anything new. That is why they need to make the decision to seek out a mentor and they need to be sure of the reasons they are seeking the relationship. It's easy, especially as a startup, to be discouraged and not believe in a mentor, but it's important to learn to take constructive criticism in a positive way and not let it affect your judgement - or your relationship with them.

Sometimes you can be too close to an issue to see a solution - or even that there's an issue to start with. That's what mentors are for; they are there to help you make the best decisions you can. If you don't agree with feedback from a mentor, take a few moments - or even a few days - to sit on it. Try to think objectively about why they have come to that conclusion and you may start to see past the blinkers.


Coming up in Small Business: Yahoo's Marissa Mayer may have been down on it, but remote working - or teleworking - is becoming a more viable option as technology improves. So how does it work in a small business? If you've got a story to share, please get in touch via the 'Read more by Caitlin Sykes' function below.

- NZ Herald

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