Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Guest Post: Liam Black on being a mentor

Liam Black is co-founder of Wavelength, a global network bringing together business leaders and social innovators. Liam is an award-winning social entrepreneur who has founded and led a number of social businesses. With Jamie Oliver he grew Fifteen into a global brand with businesses in Europe and Australia. Liam's a mentor to young entrepreneurs and a busy writer and speaker on entrepreneurialism and social innovation.

Reading Dom’s blog about what he looks for in a mentor made me think about my mentoring history. I’m a pushover for any young entrepreneur who asks for help and over the years I have mentored/coached/helped scores of them. Dom may be the first Tory I’ve mentored, and despite differing political views, we get on well! Our relationship is proof that the mentor and mentee (awful word) need not share identical beliefs – in fact it can help the mentee get challenging different perspectives.

I have had huge benefit from mentors. My best was Graham Morris who in 1999 I recruited to chair the social business I was then leading. A scouser and a hard man from the car industry, he had more business knowledge in his little finger than I had in my whole body. Graham helped me enormously and pulled off that rare trick of being able to push and challenge me without ever talking down or making me wrong.

My mentoring is a combination of advice giving, door opening, connecting, hooking up with money, getting access to supply chains and, often, simply listening and assuring them they’re not nuts and it is okay to get really mad and have a good cry about how damn hard it is to create and sustain a business of any sort.

Sometimes the help they want is very basic – business model options, branding ideas, getting enough cash to pay next month’s wages (!) – but as a relationship develops and deepens it inevitably becomes more personal and there are many conversations about purpose, balancing the business with personal relationships, fears, exits and rewards.

With social entrepreneurs working with the homeless or deprived youth, an area we soon get into is identity . I try and help them uncouple their own sense of worth from what they are doing. Too many (often middle class) people want to ‘save’ the poor and – albeit unconsciously – tie up their own redemption with their social impact. Many the long hour with a social entrepreneur beating himself or herself up that they couldn’t save so and so from going back to prison or from drinking himself to death. The sooner that people realise that they cannot make anybody do anything, the better their mental health will be and the more sleep they’ll get.

How to remain passionately committed to the cause and not burn out is a regular topic of conversation. Social entrepreneurs can act as if they really believe the world will stop turning if they take a few days off to look after themselves. One of these would be world saviours told me recently the best advice I gave him several years ago when he was up against it was to take a holiday and have some fun. He did; mentoring is not brain surgery.

The worst thing you can do as a mentor is dance round the hand bag or prevaricate. If an idea is crap then tell them. If they repeatedly don’t do what you advise, say goodbye. Sometimes it is about helping them work out better questions but, when I clearly know more than they do about something – or at least have made the very mistake they are about to – then telling them straight not to do something is what is needed. In the world of social enterprise/investment/innovation there is a great deal of self serving guff. Playing the grumpy old man mentor is good for them – “hmm that’s all very well you’ve won the Blogg Sprockets Social Entrepreneur of the Last Ten Minutes Award – but you can’t even pay your rent next month. Get a grip”.

The fact that I actually have become a grumpy old man adds authenticity to this process.

Why do I mentor? The old cliché which all mentors are supposed to trot out is that we get more back from our mentees than we give them. I’m not sure this is true for me – indeed if it is generally true then why do it? But no doubt spending time with younger, passionate, idealistic innovators determined to change the world can be very inspiring. I guess I will keep doing it until they stop collaring me.

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