Jane Howells, Mentoring for Growth Programme Lead, Be the Business
Leadership can be a lonely place at the best of times. During a crisis, this feeling is amplified as your staff, customers, suppliers and lenders all look to you for answers. Difficult decisions need to be made, often with imperfect information and in an uncertain context. We speak about business resilience and being prepared, but regardless of experience or contingency planning, nothing could have prepared SME leaders for the impact of this pandemic.
It can be difficult to face the challenges brought by this crisis day after day after day. Even more so when you are the sole owner or manager of a business. Who does a small business owner turn to for guidance in a time of crisis? They may not have a board of directors, or a team of advisors ready to step in to provide impartial insight and strategic advice. They may not have a sounding board to help talk through options and next steps. We at Be the Business want small and medium business owners to turn to us.
Be the Business is a government supported and business led charity established to help SMEs improve their business performance. At Be the Business we recognise that small businesses will be facing a difficult time and difficult decisions, and we want to help. We have established a free Rapid Response Mentoring Programme which matches experienced executives from successful firms with SME leaders to help mentor and guide them through the next critical steps for their business. This is a short sharp programme which lasts 12 weeks and gives small business that little bit of support to help them on the path to recovery. This free programme is open to all SMEs with at least six full time staff and turnover of a minimum of £1m.
The process is quick and straightforward: once registered, an SME owner is matched to an experienced mentor (typically within two weeks). We provide a toolkit to help them both to work out how best to collaborate. We encourage a weekly call or online meeting to identify challenges and talk through options and possible solutions.
We have received terrific support from the British business world, with volunteers coming from companies like Accenture, Amazon, BAE Systems, GSK, KPMG, Lloyds and Siemens. They all want to give something back and help small businesses through the crisis. You can learn more about the programme and sign up here
You may not have thought that a mentor could make a big difference as an SME tries to navigate through this extreme crisis. However, the businesses we work with have found their mentor to be a key factor in getting them through the worst and preparing them to bounce back better. From speaking with small business owners, there are three ways a mentor plays a role in helping them prepare for recovery: being a critical friend, crisis management, and adjusting to the new normal.
A critical friend
A critical friend will act as a sounding board to help talk through options and decisions, whether this is availing of Government supports, new business models, or how to keep the business going through external pressures. An extra pair of eyes and a fresh perspective can help a small business owner find the right course of action.
Mentors can be trusted advisors, but often a valuable part of the mentoring relationship is about listening. The current circumstances will have unleashed terrific stress on small business leaders. A mentee may simply want to talk and to unburden their worries and fears, for themselves, their business and their employees. Having a critical friend by their side at this incredibly difficult time can help their well-being and mental health, putting them in a better frame of mind to find solutions and take the next steps.
Business owners are now facing very specific challenges which may make or break their business. This might be a decision not to re-open to protect staff and customers or due to the impossibility of carrying on for logistical reasons. It could be that business operations may need to change significantly in order to carry on. Either way swift actions with long term implications for the business and staff will need to be taken.
Of course, mentors will not have faced this specific crisis in their career, but they will have handled other business-critical challenges. They will have had to make real-time decisions that have had far-reaching consequences, handle shifting external parameters, assimilate information in double-quick time, and rapidly select which option to implement. A mentor’s ability to help steer a small business owner towards the best outcome for their business, have their back and build their confidence can be the deciding factor in keeping a small business leader going in a crisis situation.
Adjusting to the new normal
Business owners will now be making significant changes to the way they do business. There are very few sectors which can continue as they did pre-COVID-19 and change is always a challenge. Effectively managing change can be a very difficult process even in good times. A mentor can add much-needed additional leadership capacity at a time when there is so much to do and get right. Two heads are better than one, and a mentor can provide a new perspective on new directions of travel for the business. Businesses will rapidly need to develop new processes for employee engagement, serve new customer needs, or move in a new direction such as online sales. The external, objective perspective can help a business owner to spot ways to redirect resources and internal talent, find efficiencies, and to identify new opportunities to help the business to bounce back better.
The role of a mentor for a small business has never been more vitally important. I’d like to leave you with a quote from one of the small business owners on the programme:
“I feel like I was sent a guardian angel just in time for the crisis and, I hope, beyond. Assuming we get through the crisis I look forward to working on more stuff to thrive rather than survive.”
If you think we can help your business, or if you would like to get involved in this programme, we would love to hear from you.