Why Mentoring Matters

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket – the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/05/02/why-mentoring-matters/

There’s a big drive to increase the number of business mentors in the UK today through Government-backed initiatives like Get Mentoring and Mentorsme.co.uk. This is because along with finance, mentoring is regularly cited by start-ups as one of the things they need most in order to achieve success. Indeed, research shows that 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more (double the rate of non-mentored entrepreneurs) and 20% are more likely to experience growth.

But what exactly is a Mentor? Well, it does seem to differ depending on who is asking and at what stage of development they are at, although the Wikipedia definition of ‘someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague’ is probably one you are already familiar with. In general, a mentor is usually a trusted person with whom the mentee can discuss ideas or problems and receive impartial feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism. A two-way process, the ideal relationship is one where the mentor gains just as much as the mentee, by being mentally stimulated and having the feel-good factor of ‘giving something back’ to the ecosystem.

Most of my career has involved ‘helping’ people in some way or another. Sharing knowledge and ideas and encouraging others to fulfil their potential is something that I not only feel is a worthwhile occupation but something that I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from. The past three years in particular have involved me sharing business start-up information online by writing website articles and blogs, signposting young entrepreneurs to useful resources, delivering lectures in person, moderating forums and answering queries by phone, email and social media. In effect, I’ve been working as a virtual mentor for people across the UK, so when the Get Mentoring campaign began, I decided to register for some ‘official’ training to give me a better understanding of the role and how I could do more in an offline setting.

One of the things that surprised me about this training was that the ‘official’ Get Mentoring definition of a mentor is slightly different to what I understood it to be. There is a clear emphasis on the fact that although a mentor is there to be a sounding board and offer feedback, they’re not supposed to offer ‘advice’ to the mentee. Instead, the mentor is advised to do lots of signposting, ask challenging questions and encourage the mentee to arrive at their own conclusions through reflective conversations around problems. The difficulty arises when the mentor is asked a direct question like, ‘What would you do in my situation?’ or ‘How do you do X?’ and the mentee expects a direct answer or opinion on the matter. In this situation, the mentor is ok to talk about relevant, personal experience but is meant to offer a range of options from which the mentee can choose.

I understand the theory and reasoning behind this thinking, but in real-life, the entrepreneurs I meet and communicate with online usually want a quick answer so I’m not 100% convinced that the no-advice rule is suitable in every situation. I think it depends on the mentee, the urgency of their problem and the relationship with the mentor. Having said that, the ultimate mentors – Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi of Star Wars – often talked in riddles and set tests for Luke Skywalker to overcome and emerge more skilled as a Jedi warrior, so perhaps it depends on the scale of the task?

Startup Weekend Newcastle

Since doing the Get Mentoring training, I’ve had the chance to be a mentor at two key events in the tech start-up world. The first was at a fifty four hour Startup Weekend event in Newcastle where I did an epic twelve hour stint mentoring twelve teams who had only met the previous evening. Perhaps it was the time-limited nature of the event but there was a real intensity to each mentoring slot which felt more like a brainstorming session in which all kinds of crazy ideas were suggested by everyone in the room, before the best ones were filtered out and developed further. I got a huge buzz out of this event as I was able to share insight and knowledge whilst receiving inspiration from the mentees in return. It was also particularly pleasing to see that each of the teams had implemented some of the ideas we had discussed in their final pitches, demonstrating that they had both listened to and believed in me as a mentor.

Springboard London

A few days later, I travelled to London to spend a day at the new Google Campus to meet and mentor the eleven start-ups who are part of the Springboard London tech accelerator programme. This was more like a speed dating event where I was given a table and then each of the teams were given twenty minutes with me to build up a rapport, discuss their business and challenge their assumptions. Again, the short time period meant there was little time for polite chit chat and so it was straight down to business. I’d been sent background information on each of the teams and they had all done their homework on me too which was great to see as it helped the conversation move much faster than it would have otherwise. Apart from feeling good about helping a group of exciting new businesses there is kudos for me in being involved in a programme which is at the epicentre of the European tech start-up scene, not to mention the chance to spend a day at the Google Campus.

Rocket @ Google Campus
Start-up launchpad @ Google Campus

These recent experiences have convinced me that mentoring is a vital ingredient in the success of any new start-up. In my opinion, the major advantage that Springboard London, its Newcastle equivalent (ignite100) and similar tech accelerator programmes throughout Europe and the US give to their participants is not only access to finance but a wide range of experienced mentors who can open doors and help them achieve their goals much faster than they could on their own. Ultimately, it is still the start-ups themselves who are doing the work, but to know that there is a network of people out there who believe in you and your idea(s) can often be the difference between success and failure.

Obviously, not everyone is lucky enough to be part of a tech accelerator programme, but you can still build up your own network of mentors. Look around you in your current profession and further afield for people who you admire for their achievements and with experience relevant to what you are aiming to do. There are paid mentoring networks out there you can join but most people are quite happy and flattered to be asked to be a mentor. Just be clear about the format of the relationship, what you are hoping to achieve and respectful of their time. Remember that the mentor is not there to do all the work for you, but rather to talk things through and to push you to ever greater heights. Finding a good mentor or team of mentors could be the most important thing you do in your business career and so it’s important to do your homework and to ask for help. Your search for a mentor (or mentors) begins now!

Confidence – The Stuff Entrepreneurs Are Made Of

This article was originally written for and published on Upmarket – the US-based online business magazine at http://upmarket.squidoo.com/2012/04/03/confidence-the-stuff-entrepreneurs-are-made-of/

Over the past three years I’ve worked with thousands of start-ups across the UK, and have come to the conclusion that confidence is the number one ingredient that entrepreneurs need if they are to succeed in business.

Although funding (or the lack of it) is regularly cited as a barrier to starting a business, it’s really the mindset and attitude of the founder that is more important than anything else. Let me qualify this statement.

Working for one of the UK’s longest running youth enterprise programmes means I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many hundreds of entrepreneurs at various stages in their career including some of the most successful business people in the country. They all share a common trait with each other which is an unshakeable self-belief in what they are doing and the path they have chosen.

There’s a long-running argument in the business world about whether entrepreneurs are born or made but I’m now a firm believer in the latter. Confidence is born out of experience and so the more varied experiences you are exposed to the more confident you will become. In particular, it appears that if someone experiences a positive outcome to their entrepreneurial activities early on in life (no matter how small), they are highly likely to repeat this behaviour again. It’s almost like a switch in their brain is flicked and they start to see things differently to everyone else around them.

It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve lost count of the number of entrepreneurs who talk fondly about their time washing cars as a kid or selling sweets in the playground which gave them an early taste for business and set them on the entrepreneurial path. Lord Sugar (the UK equivalent of Donald Trump on our version of The Apprentice) caused controversy recently by saying that ‘If parents don’t send their kids out to make money by the age of 13, they’ll become lazy dreamers!’ He may have a point but I don’t think it’s ever too late to train yourself to think in a more entrepreneurial way.

In my own life, my main focus at school and university was always on ‘getting good grades’ (whilst having fun along the way) which would eventually lead to ‘a good job’ with ‘a good company’. I’ve been fortunate to work for some fantastic companies over the years but I’ve also had some setbacks too – including being made redundant and out of work for almost a year in 2001 which took a long while for my career (and finances) to recover from. However, I actually see this as a positive period as it allowed me to spend more time at home with my family, reflect on what I really wanted to do with my life and pursue a career in the music industry for the next few years before pivoting again into the not-for-profit sector where I have been ever since.

Each new role and the experiences they brought have made me stronger and more confident in my own abilities to learn new skills and adapt to previously unknown situations. It’s given me a much broader perspective on life and in work which means I am always eager to learn and quick to adopt new ideas. My personal motto is ‘Stay Curious’ as I feel you can never stop learning and growing as a person which is what Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha mean by living your life in ‘Permanent Beta’ in their new book The Start-Up Of You. This attitude and confidence, plus the fact I am working with start-ups every day means I have become more entrepreneurial in my role and can see opportunities for new projects and collaboration everywhere I look.

But what if you didn’t catch the entrepreneurial bug as a kid or jour job doesn’t inspire you to think like an entrepreneur? What can you do to build up your confidence and train yourself to be an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur)?

Some ideas you could try:

  • Read widely – the fact you are here suggests you are curious about personal and professional development but there are many great websites and blogs out there as well as Upmarket. I recommend not just reading online though. It’s still good to get away from your device and I still get a lot of inspiration from reading a physical newspaper, magazine or book. If you want to open your mind, I recommend reading any of The Domino Project books, preferably starting with Poke The Box by Seth Godin.
  • Talk to people – although we’re living an increasingly virtual world, you must never stop meeting and talking to people face to face. Too many problems at work are caused by poor communication within teams so perhaps you could try a No Email Day so you can build up greater rapport with your colleagues, even if it’s just getting away from your desk for a coffee in another part of the office. Human beings are inherently social and real conversations ebb and flow and meander into all kinds of interesting directions which can result in fantastic innovation if you let them.
  • Network – people always talk about the importance of networking but not many people do it right. There are so many ways to network these days, both online and offline but it’s important to try and do it with a goal in mind. Remember though, networking without a purpose is just socialising!
  • Create opportunities – why not start your own informal networking events for similar, like-minded people with a shared interest to gather? The trick here is to keep the agenda loose rather than define a structured event and let the events evolve and form around the people who attend. For example, in June 2011 I started hosting informal, after work events for local developers, designers and start-ups in my city which now attract 50 people each week. The events are free to attend and the format is simply to have one or two speakers on a theme, followed by relaxed drinks in the bar next door (where the really interesting conversations happen)!
  • Enter Awards / Competitions – I’ve seen first-hand how even just a small amount of money or just the kudos of winning an award for their work can be a real boost to an entrepreneur. Time and again the feedback we receive for the start-up awards we give out is that although the (small) amount of cash was what attracted them to the competition in the first place, it was the confidence and validation that winning gave them that was the biggest benefit. More than money, awards can generate fantastic PR for your business and open doors to more opportunities down the line.
  • Scare yourself – the only way to grow and develop both personally and professionally is to try things that you previously couldn’t do. Fear is a completely normal and natural feeling to have if you are in a dangerous environment but is usually irrational and without substance. Even if things go wrong, the negative outcome of doing something is rarely as bad as you think it will be and unless you try you’ll never know if you can do it. A good example of this is public speaking. Most people are afraid of speaking in public but the more you do it the easier it gets. If this sounds like you, why not put yourself forward to speak at an event on a topic you are passionate about? The fear and nerves will make you try harder and once you’ve done it the fear will be gone forever. Follow the fear. If you’re afraid of something, that’s where you should go next!

‘Social Media for Business’ lecture @ The University of Leeds

Slides from the 1hr ‘Social Media for Business‘ lecture I gave to around 50 students at The University of Leeds yesterday (21st February 2012).

Topics include:

  • how technology has changed in the 14yrs since I graduated from Leeds in 1998
  • how these developments have affected my career and personal life
  • how I use a wide range of free Social Media tools in business, with a particular focus on the Shell LiveWIRE programme
  • how people can use Social Media in their personal life to take control of their career and create opportunities for themselves

Please feel free to share this presentation with anyone you feel would be interested. If you’d like me to deliver a similar presentation for your business, organisation or event give me a call on +44(0)7734 722716 or email plandigital@live.co.uk

Leap Year

2012 is a ‘Leap Year’ so that means you have an extra 24hrs to do something special, be it volunteering / raising money for a good cause or starting that business you’ve been talking about.

Maybe you could use the extra day, 29th Feb, to focus your efforts in one go or spread it out over time like 1hr a week over 24 weeks?

Perhaps the term ‘Leap Year’ could start to mean something new? It’s time for you to take the plunge! I’d love to hear if you do!

We need more Leaders not Followers

In the past few years we’ve become a little obsessed with getting more ‘Followers’ on Twitter and ‘Fans’ on Facebook. This is back to front thinking.

If we’re completely honest with ourselves and each other, it’s unlikely that every little thing that we do is really that remarkable and worthy of a ‘Like’ or ‘Follow’.

I often hear people say things like, “If only we had more Facebook Fans or Twitter Followers we could sell more of XYZ” or “When we get more, we can then start spending more time improving our product/service”.

The problem with constantly striving for MORE is that you can never have enough. You’ll never be satisfied until your numbers are higher than everyone else. Also, just because someone is a ‘Fan’ on Facebook doesn’t mean they are an actual, paying customer. It just means they have the potential to become one now your Status Updates appear on their News Feed.

A much better and healthier attitude in business is to do everything in your power to make your product/service the best it can be (and then some). If you are offering something truly remarkable then your loyal Fans and Followers will appear and not necessarily online.

We need more inspiration and delight in the world. We need more Leaders not Followers!

The Domino Project: Start. Now!

Slides from my 5min Ignite presentation first delivered at the Codeworks Connect ‘Think and a Drink’ event at the Vermont Hotel, Newcastle upon Tyne on Thursday 29th September 2011.

Barriers to 'Great Work'

‘Barriers’ stopping people from producing ‘Great Work’ and achieving their dreams in Newcastle. (I got people to write them down on a piece of paper, scrunch them up into a ball, and throw them at a target on stage during my ‘Ignite’ presentation at the Codeworks Connect ‘Think and a Drink’ on 29th September 2011.

Contact me via @plandigitaluk, @lordlancaster, plandigital@live.co.uk or call +44(0)7734 722 716 if you’d like to know more or get me to deliver this presentation again for you.

‘End Malaria Day’ – help save lives by helping yourself

If you’re a fan of Seth Godin and other motivational, inspirational writers then you will find the new book from The Domino Project ‘End Malaria‘ a real treat.

Packed full of short essays, tips and insights from over 60 of the world’s leading thinkers and business brains, the purpose of this book is not only to inspire and engage the reader to bigger and better things in their own life but to actually participate in a much higher purpose by saving the lives of others.

Released on 7th September 2011 as part of ‘End Malaria Day‘ – $20 dollars (around £12 GBP) from each physical copy sold (and the full amount of each Kindle version) will be donated to ‘Malaria No More‘, an international advocacy organisation on a mission to end malaria-related deaths by 2015.

The money raised will be used to pay for mosquito nets which are proven to be one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce deaths and increase life expectancy in malaria-ridden countries. (Watch Bill Gates’ legendary TED talk from 2009 below in which he announced his campaign to end malaria).

Please buy this book and play your part in saving lives today. To find out more about the project and people behind ‘End Malaria Day’ watch the video below and visit: http://endmalariaday.com