Mentoring Enterprise – the corruption of a powerful process?

According to Tim Smit over at the School for Social Entrepreneurs all social entrepreneurs should demand a mentor. Far be it from me to disagree with such a luminary but I think not.   It is this kind of sloppy thinking that says we should ‘universalise the particular’ that leads to powerful processes of creative learning being undermined.
Entrepreneurs should seek to develop clarity on what their learning priorities (and which ‘gates’ they need ‘keepers’ to open), and they should be clear on how they are going to learn.
But the truth is that mentoring, while transformational for some, is next to useless for others.
We all have our preferences for learning process.  This truth is a problem for many enterprise support organisations who default to the ‘we’ll provide you with a mentor’ setting because they are more focussed on delivering their neatly pre-packaged service offer, agreed with funders no doubt, than they are in really understanding the needs of their service users.
Many of the mentoring enterprise schemes that I see use poorly trained mentors with even more poorly trained mentees.  There is a lack of clarity about the importance of choosing and using mentors in lifelong professional development, as the provider short cuts this with a ‘matching process’ to force start their own mentoring scheme.  No wonder that often the results are disappointing.
Such schemes tend to put the mentee in a passive role.  Mentoring becomes a process that is done to them rather than a process to help them find the personal and professional relationships that they need to help realise their enterprising vision.
Mentoring is an immensely powerful tool for professional development and the transmission of wisdom.  However poorly designed mentoring programmes, driven by big businesses CSR ambitions, and wads of taxpayers cash have undermined its credibility in the enterprise sector for many.

All entrepreneurs should understand the power of the mentoring process and how it operates in the REAL world (where it is not funded by taxpayers) as it is likely that most of them might need mentoring at some point in their career.   But is should never be a set component of enterprise development programmes and it is certainly not right for all.

So let us stop grabbing the cash and setting up the schemes and develop an understanding of the mentoring process that will serve our entrepreneurs and our communities for many years to come.


  1. I agree with this Mike. In fact, our evaluation by nef a while back found that the mentoring relationships we brokered were either “useless” or “amazing”, and it had very little to do with SSE (i.e. they were largely about chemistry or happenstance).

    So we decided to change our approach to mentoring; first off, we don’t just offer it to all students, but work with them to identify their needs and broker a mentoring opportunity if they feel it is needed (beyond the other support they have); secondly, we do a lot of induction work with mentors on precisely what you say: ensuring the mentee is not a “passive recipient” of advice, but is part of a shared and trusted relationship that helps them realise their potential. When corporates or individuals haven’t got this, we’ve stopped working with them.

    And, thirdly, because we agree that it is up to the entrepreneurs to work out how this operates in reality (way after they are with us), we would see part of the development as them learning to identify what they need in a mentor, and how to manage an effective mentoring relationship after the SSE programme finished. Again, it is about training on both sides of the relationship.

    Mentoring, as you say, is not a “everyone should have one” nor a “one-size fits all” solution. But, based on needs, shared understanding + values, and knowledge exchange, it can be extraordinarily powerful.

  2. I look forward to SSE Yorkshire providing a role model of effective mentorship in the region Nick.

    Well done to you for having the courage to change what yo are doing and presumably going down a high quality high cost route.

    Teaching entrepreneurs to manage their own learning is well more than half the problem I think.

  3. I hope so Mike. We certainly have got it wrong a lot, and hopefully made mistakes so that our later partner franchisees don’t have to…

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