SME Toolkit: mentoring staff

Joy Maitland Interviewed for ContentLive

Part of a series of practical guides tailored to start-ups and SMEs. Bosses with patience and a taste for the long game will find that mentoring is a rewarding way to build talent and customise staff to their firms’ cultures.

Spurred by the rise of fintech, alternative lending and disruptive forms of e-commerce, the UK’s pool of start-ups and SMEs is thriving – and looks set to enjoy further growth. Just a few weeks ago, lastminute.com co-founder Brent Hoberman unveiled plans to kick-start around 200 technology start-ups over the next five years. But SMEs that harness the strengths of their people will be best equipped for long-term survival – and one of the most effective ways of doing that is by mentoring staff.

Mark Tillison, managing director of digital marketing agency Tillison Consulting, explains: “Mentoring helps us to quickly make new recruits part of our team. More importantly, it enables their work to have a valuable, and rapid, impact. Mentoring should go beyond rigid ‘training’, and help to embed not just technical skills, but also a firm’s culture and work ethic.”

Tillison urges bosses to approach mentoring with patience, and a taste for the long game. “We took many years to hone and refine our mentoring and development programme,” he says. “Today, the fruits of that investment are a flexible structure that sets clear outcomes and timescales, but also allows mentors and mentees to focus on quick wins early on. That maximises mentees’ engagement and confidence, as well as returns for the business.”

Creating a culture

As Tillison hints, mentoring provides bosses with the opportunity to customise their staff in ways that pure-play skills training often doesn’t. Hannah Duraid, director of Sheffield leisure venue the Great Escape Game, agrees. “Mentoring is a huge part of creating a culture,” she says. “The main challenge with our firm is ensuring staff provide a fun environment while maintaining a professional air. We have brought in appraisal systems and other policies and procedures to give staff direction on that front.”

She adds: “I have just appointed one of our crew members, Tom, to a supervisor role. This is quite a drastic change, so we are mentoring him through it. Constant discussion and feedback are key. I have explained how I’ve handled my own responsibilities, and how I’ve nurtured respect and a positive work ethic among our staff. However, I have also stressed that it’s important for Tom to develop his own style, rather than copy someone else.”

“Mentoring helps us to quickly make new recruits part of our team. More importantly, it enables their work to have a valuable, and rapid, impact”

Mark Tillison, managing director, Tillison Consulting

Simon Schnieders, founder of boutique SEO consultancy Blue Array, mentors young workers through the UK’s National Apprenticeships scheme. One of his tactics is to bring those mentees into the realities of the working environment as quickly as possible. “It’s a paid, 12-month programme,” he says, “like a typical employment arrangement, with a contract and probationary period. That gives both them and us time to assess whether or not it’s the right thing for them to do.”

Mental maturity

Schnieders has spoken to other SME owners who are unconvinced by mentoring, finding it hard to see past the initial six months of time and resourcing costs. However, he says, “I aim to get a return on that investment 12 to 18 months down the line. And having young people with little or no commercial experience is great, because I can train them in what works for the business, rather than working with ideas brought in from other firms that may not fit.”

He adds: “I select mentees from a mental maturity point of view, so initially I carry out Skype interviews where I might go through about 10 or 15 people to see if they’re right for us. We use [team messaging app] Slack in the office, which resonates with that particular age group, so we make sure that all our communications flow through it, and that our mentees read them all. That helps them absorb the language and the tone you use to communicate in a business.”

Schnieders can monitor mentees’ emails before they are sent and, as the mentees gain communications skills and confidence, “slowly but surely” introduce them to clients. “One young man I mentored couldn’t properly look me in the eye at first; now he accompanies me to meetings with C-suite staff and presents with real confidence,” he says.

Understand the ‘why’

Joy Maitland, managing director of inemmo Leadership Development Solutions – a consultancy that has mentored extensively across SMEs, corporates and charities – recommends that anyone who is keen to introduce a programme to their firm should observe these points.

  1. Understand the ‘why’ behind your decision to start a mentoring scheme. Reasons to establish it may be to boost retention; improve employee satisfaction; fast-track new, high-potential staff; and/or help senior executives steer the organisation towards company goals.
  2. Acknowledge that successful schemes can only be built with thorough planning, and can only grow through unanimous commitment. If time frames, actions and required resources, including cost, are not factored in, the programme could fizzle out.
  3. Ensure that mentors and mentees understand their roles in the scheme, and that there is a process of continuous feedback. Flexibility should be built in, allowing individuals to determine the best fit and adjust to each other’s personalities.
  4. Agree what success should look like – both for the mentees and for the organisation. Key objectives and KPIs must be decided on when the programme is structured.
  5. Measure and record your successes – and don’t forget to celebrate them, too, because they show that you have achieved effectiveness. Documenting milestones will provide you with guidelines for the future.

Maitland also advises that mentors should be as carefully selected as mentees. “Never assume that because someone is experienced in business that they will automatically be great at mentoring,” she says. “Mentors need to understand the plan, the process, what is expected of them and even how to build rapport at the start of the relationship.”

“In some respects,” adds Tillison, “our mentoring has proven too successful: we’ve developed individuals too well, and they’ve moved on to pastures new. While that’s always sad, not developing staff who then stay on is a much more frightening prospect!”