Posted: Wed 29th Jun 2022
Enterprise Nation is one of the small business support providers delivering voluntary mentoring as part of the government's flagship Help to Grow: Management programme.
The programme is a 90% government-funded, 12-week course with a combination of online sessions and face-to-face learning, delivered by business schools. It is open to businesses with five or more employees.
Here, we talk to Emma Ellse, one of the voluntary mentors involved with the scheme. Emma goes into her professional background, explains some of the benefits business mentoring can bring, and shares her hopes for Help to Grow: Management as it progresses.
Emma, can you take us through your professional background?
I'm an academic at the moment. I work part-time in the University of Lincoln's business school. I'm a senior lecturer and I teach marketing, business, leadership and consultancy. I've been doing that for around five years.
My background is in industry. I have 25 years of working at all levels of industry and quite a lot of experience at management and senior level. I've worked with many agencies and a multitude of clients across all sectors. I've managed teams, reported into boards, put my own departmental business plans and reports together, managed budgets, managed recruitment.
Once you're at senior level in an agency, you're working with businesses directly. You spend time with them, support them with planning, budgeting, forecasting and goals. And work to help them fix whatever problems have arisen.
At the business school, I take briefs from industry, from clients and from my network, and work on them with my students. With each brief, we'll do a research project so we can provide clients with some answers. And in doing that, we identify all kinds of different issues within the businesses themselves.
One module that I teach, I ask students to create a demo business. So, if you were creating this business, how would you do it? What research would you need to do? What would be the start-up costs and the operating costs? Who would your suppliers be? Who would your audience be?
When did you begin working as a mentor? What made you want to share your knowledge and experience to help business owners?
It came from years of working with huge fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies. The likes of Tesco, Colgate, Mars and so on. I spent a lot of time talking to these big companies, hearing what issues and problems they had. And then feeling that, actually, I could take the advice I was giving them and use it to really benefit people who were just starting out.
At that time, I realised I'd get more personal satisfaction from making a massive difference with a small company than a very tiny difference with a much, much bigger global corporation. It was that switch in my mind of where my values and passion lie, and being able to feel like I was really doing some good for someone else at the start of their journey.
For me, that comes in the form of mentoring and sharing the knowledge and experience that I've gained throughout the years in industry. It's where I can make the biggest impact, I think.
Small businesses see significant development through mentoring: Become a mentor and provide 10 hours of one-to-one support. Find out more
What do you see as the main attributes and characteristics a good mentor should have?
Empathy, definitely. You must be able to be empathetic and understand what your mentees are going through. You don't always need to have all the answers. Sometimes I work with executives at the beginning of their careers, and they need me to bring in personal experiences and concrete examples of when I did something specific.
And sometimes they learn through your past experiences. Being able to empathise and say you understand, you've had exactly the same experience, and here's what happened. Sometimes it's about telling them where you messed up and made mistakes. Where things went horribly wrong, and what you'd do differently if you could go back. And I think they learn a lot from that.
It also helps to be able to switch between mentoring and coaching, depending on who you're working with. I coach quite a lot of leaders, and often at that level I mentor and coach. Because a lot of the time, the leaders have the answers and know what they must do, but almost need permission to do it. So through being able to coach them and help them find their own answers, they can become more self-reflective and, in turn, better leaders.
I think a good mentor can do the two. It's dictated by the situation you're in and what the person who's with you is trying to achieve. If what they need to achieve has to happen through self-reflection, you can coach that out of them. If it's something they haven't faced before, it might be more mentoring they need. Talking through what the outcomes might look like, and drawing on past experiences.
Do you think it takes a specific type of person to be a mentor? Or is it a skill that can be taught?
Like with anything, these things can be learned. I don't think mentoring or coaching is an innate skill that we're born with. Some people are naturally better at it than others. And I think those people are naturally empathetic and have no unconscious bias. Unconscious bias stops you from being open to situations and to outcomes.
Also, those people with less ego do better at mentoring and consulting. Because it's not about us, it's about our clients. And we get the satisfaction, and we succeed, when our clients succeed.
What do you see as the key benefits of mentoring for business owners?
It's a different perspective. If you talk to a business mentor, that mentor is talking to lots of other businesses in lots of other industries that are facing very similar issues, and they build up that cross-industry knowledge.
As a mentor, it's quite likely you've come into contact with these issues time and time again. You might even have had them yourself in your own business or in companies you worked for previously.
So it's that perspective, and the richness of that perspective, that you wouldn't get by talking to somebody within your own organisation.
What's the best thing about being a mentor?
The best thing is making a difference. When you get that feedback where someone says they took note of what you said and tried it and the outcome has absolutely revolutionised the way they're working, it's great.
Recently I've done some leadership training, and I've had a couple of the people that were in the training come back and say they'd reflected on what I'd said and it's changed their approach and it's now made a massive difference to their relationship with their team. So it's when it makes a massive difference, that's what you get out of it.
What do you see as the biggest challenge?
I guess there are two things. The first is when you come up against something you haven't tackled before. But that's when your skills come in.
It's easier for me because I'm also an academic, and I often face things I'm not used to. I'm good at quickly researching the marketplace and what's going on, finding out what's happening, and bringing in other people who have faced something similar to help support. That challenges is quite easily dealt with.
The other challenge is when you're working with someone who isn't a good fit. Someone who you just jar with, or who isn't prepared to see things from a different perspective, or is stuck in their ways and won't try something different.
But there are always ways of overcoming that. You can vet them, pre-qualify them to make sure you're a good fit. What I do before I work with someone is to have a chat, and almost interview them, to find out whether I'll enjoy mentoring them.
What are your hopes for the Help to Grow: Management programme? What would you like to see the programme achieve as it runs?
Obviously, I'd like it to be massively successful for everyone involved. It's an exciting opportunity for small businesses to get really high-quality training, and my hopes are that it's just enriching for everybody.
For the business schools, I hope it helps raise their profile and showcase some of the work they do. For the businesses involved, I know that they're getting the sort of training you'd pay thousands of pounds for on an MBA. I hope they're going to be able to apply the knowledge and make a real difference in their businesses.
For the mentors, I'm hoping the volunteers like myself can see the opportunity to keep their knowledge current and relevant and to build their own confidence in providing those mentoring sessions.
Want to help a small business grow?
Being a mentor goes far beyond the rewarding feeling of 'giving back'. Mentors gain a range of personal development benefits from the experience.
Become a voluntary mentor for the Help to Grow: Management Course and commit 10 hours over 12 weeks to support businesses with their growth action plan. Sign up today
The national mentoring element of the Help to Grow: Management Course is being delivered by a partnership of Newable, Enterprise Nation and the Association of Business Mentors on behalf of the Department for Business & Trade.