We talk to three of the most sought-after mentors underpinning Scotland’s most respected business support programmes.
- Bob MacDonald, Chief Executive, Wood Group Kenny
- Chic McSherry, CEO, Big Red Digital
- Franc Jeffrey, Director EQ Travel Management
In a world where help for business is being constantly reviewed, refreshed, reconstituted , and adorned with extra bells and whistles, the fact that the Scottish Chambers Business Mentoring has succeeded for a decade (or fourteen years if you count its Renfrewshire Chamber-run prototype) suggests that in the B2B world, a simple format works best. The direct, unadorned sharing of “in the trenches” experience seems to work best, without the addition of elaborate management structures or bureaucratic fads.
So what is the secret of a good business mentoring experience? According, to Chic McSherry, a 10-year veteran of the Chambers programme, whose most recent IT services start-up iPort4business in Glasgow has a turnover of £2m, the “two way street” of benefit between mentor and mentoree satisfies a human need to share business problems, but without the complications and restraints arising from daily working relations or conflicting commercial interests.
“Quite often I am talking to business owners who have started up, and they are at a stage where they can’t talk to any staff about their problems.” McSherry says. “They probably can’t talk to their spouses or partners, and they are a wee bit lost about what they do next, because they think everyone else seems to be doing it so much better.“
“So the first step is to give them a degree of confidence, that they are doing it right, and they might just need to do it bit more to move things forward, that’s probably one of the most important things.”
For Franc Jeffrey, founder of the £10-turnover Equilibrium Travel Management company in Dunfrermline, the scheme works so well because the weekly or monthly mentoring meetings act as a kind of escape-hatch from the grinding day-to-day tasks and routines that are a necessary part of a businesses, particularly a fast-growing one.
“I’ve been in business for 30 years, and there’s no problem that my mentees can bring me that I haven’t seen before. You’ve been through it, or you know someone who has. The main overwhelming thing to help with is the degree of confusion. Loneliness isn’t the right word for what these business leaders are going through, more like a kind of isolation”.
The art of the good mentor, his is suggesting, is to alleviate the pressure of solitude and in so doing , tactfully to signpost positive ways forward.
“Generally as part of the mentoring programme, you never give them advice as such” Jeffrey continues “What you do is you ask them questions, and if you are doing your job well the questions you ask them will allow them to think how they can move forwards themselves”
“More often than not they already know, they just haven’t had time to think about it. By asking them the questions, you bring it to the forefront of their minds. Also by getting them away from the daily routine, you give them space to think. The best hour of the day you can spend is the hour when you can just stand and stare out the window. Because that’s where the next idea is going to come from, that’s when you know what your exit strategy is going to be, that’s how you know if you have got to the place you are going to get to and that doesn’t happen when you are at your desk.”
All of which implies that good mentorship, at least as practiced in the Scottish Chambers Business Mentor Programme, demands the degree of emotional intelligence and empathy that can only be learned by experience.
For Bob MacDonald, the globe-trotting chief executive of offshore engineering services giant Wood Group Kenny, who jokes that he was “roped in” to the scheme after happening to attend a Chambers lunch session in 2011, the scheme wouldn’t be worth the time of an extremely busy man if he didn’t think it was making a difference.
And of course the advice that he gives would be worth a lot less coming from someone less busy, or with less experience of prioritising business tasks while undertaking a gruelling schedule. So how does he reconcile the demands that participation in the scheme with an exceptionally complex corporate leadership role?
“At times it can be a challenge to offer as much support as I’d like; with work I travel extensively and at home I have a young family. But seeing businesses and people succeed it what drives me to do this. I’m a naturally driven person and am passionate about succeeding and helping other to succeed. I thoroughly enjoy working with individuals and young businesses as I not only get the chance to pass on what I have learnt through the years but I also get the opportunity to learn about new businesses, ideas and initiatives – it’s a great feeling to be part of what I hope will become a wonderfully successful business.”
All of the mentors, who sign non-disclosure agreements at the start of the relationship are keen to avoid advising companies in their own sectors, for obvious reasons. But the nature of their advice tends to be universal as, in the words of Franc Jeffrey “business is business is business”, whether it is a cosmetic surgery or a subsea services supplier. Bob MacDonald sums it up: “There is never just one challenge – but some of the more common issues include, generating and delivering against a business plan, the challenge of growing a company – including delegation, business development and accessing new markets, people management, and of course … communication challenges!”
The topics may be similar but there is a vast difference in the ways that companies and individuals engage with them. As a veteran of the scheme, Chic McSherry can spot types and patterns of business behaviour, and enjoys the people-watching aspect of the role:
“Some people, are full of big plans and want to do this and want to do that and you never hear from them. Other people are really methodical. It really depends on what they want out of it to be absolutely honest. If they don’t want that much out of it, they won’t get that much out of it. I know what I can provide.”
“I’ve had some really good success stories I’m really proud of, others where you meet them for a couple of coffees and it sounds promising but you never hear from them again.”
All good mentors, it seems have developed similarly clear rules of engagement: Says Chic McSherry: “I always offer the same amount of time, a year’s engagement, but within that time I’m either quite tightly engaged where I work quite closely with them at a finance level, almost as a non-exec director, or it can be a looser arrangement, where it’s a just bit of advice and someone to talk to, because people need that too. I’d say about 20% want me as a non-exec and the rest on an ad hoc basis.”
All the mentors consulted are agreed that the scheme has lasted as long as it has because driven business leaders like themselves consider it worth their while to make it work. Indeed, it is more than worth their while, they find it positively beneficial.
Says Bob MacDonald: You get to meet some great business minds, who are hungry for knowledge and share the same drive and passion for developing a successful business as I do. Exchanging ideas and experiences with likeminded individuals has allowed me to broaden my own skills, and I take back lessons learnt to improve areas within my own business.”
Franc Jeffrey explains why after four years as a mentor he remains “very happy to carry on doing it”:
“Because the mentees know that nothing that you are discussing will be discussed with anyone else, they are as honest as you can be and it’s from this honesty that you can really learn something.”
Ten years in operation suggests that the Scottish Chambers Mentoring scheme has found its own delicate balance of mutual benefit for mentor and mentoree, a fascinating field of relations given that all involved are profit-minded businessmen and women first and foremost, not philanthropists or champions of social enterprise.
Thus the scheme is a standing rebuke to those, all too prevalent in Scottish politics and society who view “business” as the polar opposite of “community” or “social responsibility”. Bob MacDonald sums it up “I believe as a business leader we have a degree of responsibility to ensure we share our experiences – good and bad. No one person can say they got to where they did without a few falls along the way and I believe it is important these life lessons are passed on and shared.”
The final word goes to Chic McSherry who has a typical account of the personal commitment has made the scheme so long-lasting: “I didn’t need much persuading, it’s something I was pretty open to. I met someone by accident quite early in my business career and the man was unbelievably helpful to me, and it never cost me anything. So when I was asked if I wanted to do it, I figured this might be a way of paying it back.”
To understand why the Scottish Chambers mentoring scheme works so well, thriving largely by word of mouth and without the support of much publicity or political attention, it seems, you need only grasp the principle that successful people want others to succeed. That surely is a positive message that deserves to be celebrated more widely.
Wood Group Kenny is the world’s largest pipeline and subsea engineering and management contractor with over 30 years’ experience. It has 1200 professional staff in 5 continents. Bob was operations director now CEO. He was brought up in Fyvie and Peterhead and has a vast experience of all things subsea. Has held varied roles in subsea engineering, project management, commercial support, engineering management, contracts management, operations support, account management, business management and most recently holding the position of operations director. “Current Ambitions are not financial, just challenges”
Iport4business specializes in design and supply of IT and software business solutions. Chic is most proud of building and keeping sale team and achieving growth through two recessions dealing with major change in industry within IT sector. In addition he has developed a number of businesses also at international level and is a board member of Business Gateway Lanarkshire. He is particularly experienced in growing business from scratch and currently trades and travels across Europe.
EQ Travel Management is a major player in the highly competitive corporate travel market. Franc, an expert business change specialist, considers his main business achievement, apart from starting and growing his current business, to be working for a family firm taking turnover from $20million to over £199million, and internationalising the company from the US to the UK and four other countries. Equilibrium Travel Management is employee owned, meaning that every team member has a vested interest in always giving 100%” to our clients’ travel requirements.