Compendium 2.2.4 Mentors

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2.2.4. Mentors and coaches


The challenge

The shift from being an employee to becoming an entrepreneur involves much more than just learning a series of hard business skills like accounting or marketing – even though these are undoubtedly crucial. In fact, it is increasingly recognised that entrepreneurship requires a series of attitudes, personal qualities and mindsets which cut across traditional educational boundaries. It involves:

  • a proactive attitude to searching out opportunities and solving problems rather than waiting for solutions to be handed down from above
  • the ability to think laterally
  • the willingness to experiment and, therefore, to take reasonable risks in the face of uncertainty
  • the capacity to work in a team and motivate clients, suppliers and workers behind an idea, service or product.

These skills are hard to teach in a traditional way. Some people are clearly better at them than others but they are not necessarily the most highly educated or wealthier members of society. In fact, evidence shows that these entrepreneurial mind-sets and attitudes are generally acquired and perfected through experience – both directly and through family, friends and peers. This is why an entrepreneurial tradition takes time to build up but then is often passed down through generations in particular cultures and geographical locations.

This is also the challenge which has generated techniques like coaching and mentoring. Both recognise that certain entrepreneurial attitudes and skills are best developed by experiential learning – learning by doing or action learning – rather than by studying a textbook or attending a lecture. Both techniques also share certain common elements like the need to listen, to start firmly on the ground, and to generate trust, confidence and independence. The same person can be both a coach and a mentor. However, the two methods are quite distinct:

  • Business coaching is the practice of providing support and occasional advice to an individual or group in order to help them recognise the ways in which they can improve the effectiveness of their business. It can be provided in a number of ways, including one-to-one tuition, group coaching sessions and large-scale seminars. Coaches can be used at any stage in a business’s life cycle.
  • On the other hand mentoring involves a developmental relationship between a more experienced mentor and a less experienced 'mentee' and typically involves sharing and comparing advice and information. It is always one-to-one. Ideally mentors for business start up should themselves have had the experience of starting up and running a business.

So the key differences are in the shared experience, the more open “brainstorming” of solutions and the long-term progressive nature of the personal relationship.

How EQUAL has approached the issue – examples

Most coaching and mentoring methodologies were developed with mainstream ‘businessmen’ in mind. In fact, in some countries the stereotype of a business mentor is a retired white male bank manager. However, the underlying assumptions behind both methodologies also create a window of opportunity for opening up entrepreneurship to a wider public. EQUAL partnerships have found that many people who face disadvantage in the labour market come from backgrounds with a rich tradition of small-scale commerce, service or craft enterprise. The hidden skills that people develop in the daily struggle for survival can also provide the base for entrepreneurial talent. Many EQUAL partnerships have explored both coaching and mentoring methodologies to try and unlock and build on this potential. In fact, 43 of the 274 EQUAL partnerships involved in business creation used different forms of business coaching, while 59 experimented with mentoring.

The Cyfenter EQUAL project in Wales carried out what is probably one of the largest action research programmes in Europe to find out about the real needs, obstacles and aspirations of under-represented groups when setting up a business. Over 2,000 people took part in three year-long phases from 2002-2005. As part of this research, Cyfenter commissioned a report on mentor support and guidance which surveyed the available literature and reviewed 36 different organisations in the UK and Ireland. It identified three key issues which provide a useful framework for analysing the work of EQUAL and other projects in both coaching and mentoring.(1]

  • Firstly, there is the issue of matching mentors and coaches with their users or clients. This is where most EQUAL projects have concentrated their efforts by looking at the specific needs of ethnic minorities and migrants, women and young people. Some projects have delved further into the needs of particular sectors like culture or design or particular types of area like deprived inner city neighbourhoods and rural areas;
  • Secondly, there is the general need for training and controlling the quality of both coaches and mentors;
  • Thirdly, there is a growth in the use of information and communications technology in combination with face-to-face contact to overcome the time and cost of distance.

[1] Mentor Support and Guidance, Cyfenter. Menter a Business, March 2004 [1]

Matching coaches and mentors to the needs of entrepreneurs

The concept of matching the service provided by coaches and mentors to the specific needs of their clients may seem obvious – but in fact it has a number of components. The first concerns the fit between the profile of the coach or mentor and the entrepreneur. In the case of a coach it can be easier to build up trust and understand the problems if both parties share the same culture, age and sex. In the case of mentors it is also important for them to have had more business experience than their mentee. Some EQUAL projects like CAMEO in the UK, which provided mentors for people wanting to set up business in the cultural sector, or Maison du Design in Belgium also try to provide mentors or coaches with experience in the same field or sector.

However, this process is never mechanical. As Riitta Korpela, who led a mentoring project in Ostrobothnia in Finland, says: “the chemistry has to be right”. This has led a number of projects to divide the coaching and mentoring process into a number of stages – often with an initial trial period. For example, Mentorraad, a well-known mentoring project for enterprise start-ups in Rotterdam [2], structured the matchmaking process in the following way:

  • Step 1: Initial interview with mentee. After the application follows through, the project co- ordinator tries to get a picture of the entrepreneur (mentee)’s criteria, needs and preferences.
  • Step 2: Search for a suitable mentor. With the information obtained from the initial interview the project co-ordinator seeks a mentor that can be of added value to the specific situation and desires of the mentee.
  • Step 3: Matchmaking conversation. Once a suitable mentor has been found he, together with the mentee, set up rules, regulations and agreements concerning the contents of the mentoring process. This is to be sure that both parties have the same expectations before implementation.
  • Step 4: Support. According to the agreements made during the matchmaking conversation the project starts, meaning that mentor assists the mentee and that the project co-ordinator is available to both.

[2] In July 2008 Mentorraad relaunched as Your Navigator at

Building two way relationships – trust and confidence

Coaching involves much more of a formal input than mentoring. The coach may want to “drill” their client in a particular field or help them to test a particular solution. The mentor usually behaves more as a sounding board, posing questions and comparing real life experiences. However, all the EQUAL projects involved in this area stress the importance of a first stage of building trust and confidence in the entrepreneurs so that they feel “empowered” to find their own solutions and seize new opportunities.

For example the EQUAL project Euro Enterprise Evolutions [2] from the UK recommends starting at the root of the problem, tackling people's lack of belief that they could ever become self-employed by developing emotional intelligence, personal motivation and a sense of wellbeing. It used life coaching, an innovative method for raising self-awareness and self-esteem among ex-offenders. The process starts with self-awareness and problem-solving sessions for the participants to explore themselves and get to know their values. In further sessions the groups set goals and find out what skills they need to achieve them. The course goes on to look at conflict resolution and improving relationships.

Those who get the confidence to go into self-employment can follow the seven-week self-employment course that Euro Enterprise Evolutions offers in the premises of Breathing Space. This includes interactive games to show the importance of graphic communication, business quizzes to help participants work in groups, stress management sessions and active book-keeping games. A "Dragons’ Den" activity, following the format of a BBC television programme, gets participants to present their business idea to a small group of experienced business people who ask questions and challenge the trainee entrepreneurs.

Listening and understanding

Getting past the first stage of trust and confidence building requires an intimate understanding and deep affinity with the target groups. For example, the partners of another EQUAL project called AWE attribute the success they have had with rural women entrepreneurs to the understanding they have of their clients’ motivations and need. Coaches give full legitimacy to a part-time micro enterprise, which fits around family commitments, treating it as business that contributes to the rural economy. All training is offered in bite-sized chunks which fit into women’s lives. Another EQUAL project, Diane, from Belgium came to similar conclusions from the individual coaching programme they developed for women entrepreneurs.

In the same vein, EVU, a business support organisation in Copenhagen, supported by EQUAL, points out that advisers must make their own interpretations of the coaching method in order to adapt it to the cultural backgrounds of both the business owner (and the adviser) and to the actual situation. For example, in some cultures, asking direct questions is considered natural, while in others, such directness is seen as impolite. Some business owners believe that it is a waste of time if the adviser does not demonstrate his/her expertise by immediately giving concrete advice as to what should be done and how. Some consider the adviser to be an authority and ask him/her to decide what should be done. Some even expect the adviser to carry out the tasks for them.

Such expectations are in contradiction to the idea that the coach must not ‘lead’ the other person, set the agenda or promote his/her own solutions. Here the adviser must work with the client’s expectations and in each individual case evaluate how far they must go. It can be necessary to meet some of these expectations in order to establish the relationship, but it depends to a great degree on whether the business owner really cannot cope him- or herself, or whether he/she is just using an opportunity to obtain some free labour.

Providing coaching and mentoring as part of an integrated package of business support

Neither coaching nor mentoring on their own can provide a solution to all the problems faced by entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds. The EQUAL projects Van Achterstander naar Middenstander [3] in the Netherlands and K'cidade in Portugal adapted coaching and mentoring methodologies to fit the needs of entrepreneurs in deprived urban areas, while GLOCAL carried out the same process in a deep rural area of Portugal. They all conclude that coaching and/or mentoring must form part of a wider range of business training, advice and financial support.

For example, K'cidade opened its first one-stop shop in March 2006 in the Community Innovation Centre of Alta de Lisboa. These shops provide a support system to potential entrepreneurs made up of clearly defined stages from profiling and planning to start-up, consolidation and growth. Each stage provides services – such as counselling, motivation, vocational training, mentoring and facilitating access to microcredit – that help the entrepreneur acquire the personal competences, technical skills and resources necessary for success. Systems have been developed to record the progress made by the entrepreneurs along this itinerary in a way that is recognised by the entrepreneurs themselves, banks and other agencies.

Out in rural Portugal, GLOCAL developed an integrated system of one-to-one coaching and advice to help entrepreneurs develop their business plan. This was specially adapted to meet the needs of women and young people in remote rural areas. Carla Santos who has created two jobs in her firm specialised in environmental services, says that besides the economic advice, GLOCAL has helped her in terms of the psychology and sociology of the project partners and how they could work together. This kind of advice is often what is missing.

Another interesting complement to individual coaching and mentoring has been developed by a London based project called Bizfizz which established a local panel of people whose background, expertise and local know-how bring a second tier of support to clients following a tailored one-to-one coaching programme. The panel can include community activists, head teachers, faith group leaders, councillors and, of course, local business people.

Providing coaches and mentors with recognised training

Some countries and organisations have very large, well-developed mentoring schemes. This is the case of Britain’s Prince's Trust which has nearly 5,000 volunteer business mentors on its books. Each year these mentors help a similar number of young people who have been refused support from elsewhere to set up a business. With such a large scheme, the Prince’s Trust realised that it was essential to provide their mentors with good training and to create a system for controlling and certifying their quality. They used EQUAL to develop a course for mentors that was recognised by SFEDI, the official standards authority in the UK. On a smaller scale, the EQUAL project Euro Enterprise Solutions recruited local people with previous business experience by asking them if they would like to volunteer their time to mentor new entrepreneurs in return for an online 'coaching and mentoring' course for business advisers, provided by the Open College Network (OCN). The course lasts four months and is designed as mainly self-taught study, with one supporting session every two weeks. Mentors learn to have a good relationship with their clients and to develop mentoring skills such as asking good questions, listening and giving good quality feedback. "The entrepreneurs get assistance in the difficult early stages of the creation of the company and the coach practices straight away what he learns," says Peter, who is responsible for the coaching course. Similarly, ACBBA, the Association of Community-Based Business Advisers, based in London, has developed an accredited system of training business advisers who work in ethnic minority community organisations. It says that what is unique about its model is the presence not just of the training programme but of a package of support including access to mentors, briefings, computer-based tools for business advisers, library resources, peer support and access to ongoing business development.

The use of ITC – the chemistry also works on-line

Although the basic trust required for a good coaching or mentoring programme nearly always requires some face to face contact, many projects are finding that web-based solutions can provide a powerful additional tool which can help enormously to overcome problems of distance and time.

For example, the GLOCAL EQUAL project developed a tool called Netmentor as a joint output of transnational work with their Spanish partner Lumen. It consists of a web-based system for monitoring company progress after start-up. The tool addresses a dangerous gap in post-start-up support in most European countries. It comprises an Excel application linked to an extranet which gives advisers an up-to-date picture of the companies in their portfolio without the need for costly meetings and travel. Obviously this is particularly useful in remote rural areas.

An URBACT project called MILE, working on entrepreneurship among ethnic minorities in deprived urban areas is also exploring web-based tools to support what it calls “action learning sets” in different European cities. The action learning sets are small groups of people, for example business advisers for ethnic minorities, who want to learn from each other and from an external coach how to improve their service. The coach uses a combination of master classes conducted by telephone conference and web-based communication to facilitate the learning. This kind of approach is likely to grow rapidly in the future.

Recommendations for mainstreaming policies

  • It is important to develop a system for matching the experience and skills of coaches and mentors with the needs of their clients.
  • This not only means encouraging more women, young people and ethnic minority coaches and mentors but also ensuring that they have a good understanding and empathy with their clients’ situations, in order to generate two-way trust, confidence and empowerment.
  • For this reason it is often useful to foresee an initial screening or trial period in the coaching and mentoring process.
  • Coaching and mentoring work best when they form part of a broader integrated package of business advice and financial support.
  • In some countries mentors may be volunteers. In others this is unthinkable. But whatever the situation, both coaching and mentoring are highly sensitive, skilled activities with a lot of responsibility. They require good recognised training programmes.
  • Web-based tools and solutions can provide a very powerful complement to face-to-face contact and will undoubtedly become far more important in the future.

Links to EQUAL case studies

Other useful links

* Mentoring in Finland:

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