Mentoring is becoming a fashionable word. When we were developing Horsesmouth a few years ago, people tried to convince me to find another word for it as it sounded so dry, dusty and academic. But I thought that it would be a bigger win to rehabilitate the image of mentoring rather than try to create a trendy new term for it. Although we've definitely had some help from the XFactor, I'd say that this is finally now happening. Mentoring seems to be a component of every project and policy the Coalition Government announce.
Every business startup wants a mentor, everyone living with a health condition deserves a mentor and every talented wannabe needs a Cheryl or a Simon. But what is mentoring exactly? Where are all these mentors going to come from? How on earth do we keep this mentoring revolution safe and sane?
What exactly is mentoring?
When I started out in advertising I had some older wiser colleagues who I now realise were great mentors to me. At Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe where I led hundreds of staff, I mentored only a few people in our business (and probably tormented many). I could see the difference between management and mentoring. I also mentored people in the charity world struggling with politics and strategy in their organisations. I could distinguish this from any professional advice we may have given them about brands and communication.
Here are some other definitions and explanations of mentoring but you'll see that even from the professional mentoring organisations these are a bit woolly.
It's probably useful to make distinctions between three terms or concepts that often get confused: adviser, coach and mentor. An adviser is usually a paid professional affiliated to or accredited by an organisation giving quite formal and specific advice. This could be a business adviser, a tax adviser, a careers adviser etc. Advice giving is a service.
A coach, also usually paid, is someone who uses particular techniques and templates as part of an ongoing client process of learning and performance improvement. Coaching is a process.
A mentor however is someone who supports you one-to-one, based on their direct experience of the situation or challenge you face or the business you're in. Someone who's been there and done that; someone who's walked ahead in your shoes. Mentoring is a relationship.
Mentoring is about empathy with the added gift of hindsight. It is the best possible way to give something back. I think all of us who have lived and learned can do it and that all of us who are still alive and learning could use it. It is rewarding for both the mentor and the mentee. For me, mentoring is the ultimate act of volunteering and in the main I think it should not be paid for.
Where do mentors come from?
The application of the skill and goodwill of Britain's experienced business people to those starting or struggling in business could have a major economic impact. I know of many active entrepreneurs and business managers who want to participate in the win-win scenario of being a mentor. The number of retired business people alone, with all that wisdom going to waste, would be at least one million. While not all will have major success stories to tell, all will have learned salutary lessons.
Very few, however, would be able to commit to turning up somewhere regularly. Even fewer will want to undertake formal qualifications and accreditations. I do believe traditional face-to-face long term mentoring relationships can be immensely valuable to people in business - and I hope that the capacity of and access to this can be increased. This is extremely difficult and expensive to scale, however, and it really isn't always what people want. To genuinely transform the enterprise economy through mentoring, online is key.
How do we keep mentoring safe and sane?
It's already happening. There are hundreds of support and advice communities online for all kinds of different businesses - Smarta is a fantastic and successful example. We are also seeing the professional service providers reaching out to their customer base with advice and support networks - Yell.com is a great example of that.
Horsesmouth is different because its specifically designed around the one-to-one mentoring relationship and has a bank of tools and features that support, manage and reward that. We have around 7,500 people registered as business mentors on the site - ranging from tech CEO's to retired bank managers.
We are a social business because we invest considerably in making and keeping the site safe for one-to-one conversations. We also want to keep it free to use - so that many more people can access the wisdom and goodwill of our mentors - wherever and whoever they are. In fact I'd raise one note of caution to the Government in their great rush to localism. Local communities aren't the only kind of communities. Often immiediate peer groups and social pressures are the very things that dampen and diminish aspiration. We see it a lot on Horsesmouth. Web communities offer a fantastic way to break out of this cycle. We are part of the Big Society too.
MT Rainey is Founder of horsesmouth.co.uk and Chairman of digital agency Th_nk. Prior to this she was joint CEO of leading advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe.
Picture source: jdlasica