Mentoring in Finland

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A friend in need – business mentoring in Finland

Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely vocation. There is always someone, somewhere, who could help the entrepreneur to find an answer – the problem is how to find them. A mentoring project in Ostrobothnia in Finland has solved this problem. Riitta Korpela has built up a network of mentors and makes the vital ‘connection’.

Once an entrepreneur has survived the first 5–10 years – the period that is often called the “valley of death” – he or she is often ready to take on more demanding challenges. But wisdom born of experience may prompt him or her to pause and plan it all out before taking the plunge. But where is the person to ask for advice? This is the question to which business mentoring provides an answer.

When Riitta Korpela, Executive Director of Jakobstad Region Development Centre (Concordia), started her mentoring project in 2002, she spent only one tenth of her time on it, but it has been such a success that since January 2006 she has been working on it full-time. The project, which is supported by Yrityskummit Oy (‘Godfather of Enterprise’), was launched at a meeting to which the entrepreneurs, potential mentors and co-operation partners were invited. Today about 30 mentors are connected to the project, and more than 100 enterprises have received or are still receiving mentoring support on the model that was developed in Jakobstad. Other regions in Finland have shown interest in the model. A joint project between Concordia and Kosek, the regional business development company in the neighbouring region was undertaken last year, creating a wider mentor group.

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The chemistry of mentoring

All mentors work on voluntary basis. This is a very important principle, because it means that everybody can be sure that the mentor is driven by his heart and not by the profit motive. But the mentor nevertheless profits from his work, because he gets updated knowledge, new contacts, and new ways of thinking. Some of the mentors are still in paid work, while others are retired. But each has experience of entrepreneurship, leadership or business life in some way. For instance some may have expertise in export or product design. But every mentor is carefully selected for the project after an interview.

When an entrepreneur wants to get advice from a mentor, he contacts Riitta Korpela. The first discussion takes one or two hours, and the objective of the meeting is to find out what problems the entrepreneur really wants to solve by mentoring. “I always insist on meeting the entrepreneur and getting to know him or her a little,” Ms Korpela says. “’Getting more business’ is not enough. The objective must be much more concrete.”

Finding a good match between mentor and entrepreneur is crucial – the ‘chemistry’ has to be right. First Riitta Korpela organises a meeting between the entrepreneur and the mentor, but after that she just takes a rear seat. But before the meeting she has met the entrepreneur and talked with him for an hour or two, after which she chooses the mentor she thinks most suitable. The mentor and the entrepreneur meet roughly once a month, depending on the entrepreneur’s plans and how much time is required to get to a good result.

New mentors can be found in different ways. Ms Korpela contacts people she knows or has heard about from an existing mentor – many new mentors arrive via personal recommendations from existing mentors. She then asks whether the person is interested in and available to become a mentor. Once she has got to know the mentors the job of matching them with entrepreneurs is much easier.

Business transfers – an emotional topic

Mentoring is a natural way of transferring tacit knowledge. It is very important that the entrepreneur and the mentor match each other. Ms Korpela participates in the first few meetings if needed, but usually the pair soon find a common level of understanding. Trust is the basis for a good relationship in mentoring. And since the entrepreneur is often a lonely soul, he or she needs not merely a supporter but also a friend.

One important group is enterprises is those facing the need to transfer ownership. In these cases emotions play a great role. An entrepreneur has invested all his life in the enterprise and at the same time needs to think about money. Questions full of emotions are: Do I have anybody to continue my company if I retire? What are the alternatives? Which of the children could take over the company? Who is going to take the main responsibility? How to compensate the other children? These are questions that can be very difficult for families to discuss, so this is often the right time to get in touch with a mentor who is impartial and may help to find the right answer.

Supporting the mentors

The mentors usually meet each other twice a year, something that has proved to be a positive way to strengthen their work. The entrepreneurs also receive training in issues that they regard important, such as economics and leadership. Co-operation and networking are important facets of the business mentoring project and it has developed many new ways of acting. For example an entrepreneur who is preparing for an exam in entrepreneurship can have a mentor to support her or him. As well as being a successful way to help enterprises to develop, it also means that new tools will be developed all the time.

Business mentoring is a growing phenomenon. “The best thing is when one entrepreneur tells another entrepreneur about the scheme. We don’t need to do any advertising at all,” says Ms Korpela.

Contact

Riitta Korpela
Executive Director
Jakobstad Region Development Centre Concordia Ltd
Skolgatan 23
68600 Jakobstad
Finland
Tel: +358 06 724 3434
Fax: +358 06 724 3438
info@concordia.jakobstad.fi
http://www.concordia.jakobstad.fi

Prepared by Toby Johnson with material from the EU programme Linking Local Actors