Posted: Mon 30th Jan 2023
Enterprise Nation is one of the small business support providers tasked with delivering voluntary mentoring as part of the government's flagship Help to Grow: Management Course.
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 Helen Hill, one of the voluntary mentors involved with the course. Helen – who is based in West Yorkshire – talks about her route into mentoring, what business owners can get out of it and how being a mentor benefits her personally.
Helen, can you tell us about your professional background and career?
I had a very squiggly career for 13 years. I started in graphic design before moving into education as a graphic design lecturer. Then I was diagnosed with a chronic health condition and was having a rough time, so I left to become a primary school teaching assistant. After that, I moved into a role as a learning centre manager in a secondary academy school.
From there, I became a designer/writer in an e-learning company, and all my varying skills and experiences started to come together. However, my health was still causing me some issues, and my employer showed little understanding of my condition. So I threw myself into full-time self-employment in 2018, turning my little graphic design side business into what it is today.
Now I own three businesses: UnlikelyGenius (a learning and self-development business), Falling Off The Ladder (named after my book and now my coaching business and podcast hub) and Be The Future (an environmental initiative with a mission to unleash the power of families and schools to rewrite the climate story).
Why did you decide to become a mentor for other business owners?
After going solo, the more I talked to other business owners and freelancers, the more I realised how important community is and how I feel really energised and inspired by talking to others about their businesses.
Until this point, I had never realised the huge impact that an outside perspective can have on your personal development. To have someone with a different skillset and range of experiences see something from a different angle.
One well-phrased question or challenge can unleash something in a whole new direction. Sometimes, we get ourselves stuck in a loop of debating where to go next. Having someone to bounce ideas off of can release you from this process and make movement happen.
I also realised how there was a common theme as to why so many of us had chosen this route (bad experiences in toxic employment), which led me to write my book, create the podcast and start speaking out.
Through this community, I found two mentors who have profoundly impacted me and my business, and I wanted to do the same for others. I've been mentoring a teenage girl at my high school and have seen the impact that dedicated one-on-one help can make when someone has the time and space to talk through their worries, hopes and ambitions.
Small businesses see significant development through mentoring: Become a mentor and provide 10 hours of one-to-one support. Find out more
What makes a good mentor?
You have to be able to listen without judgement, switch off your mind from everything that's going on elsewhere and focus on the individual in front of you. And that's harder than it sounds! This was a big hurdle for me to get through when I first started my coach training, being in the mode of always on the go and multitasking.
Being able to establish rapport, having good questioning techniques and being willing to experiment with different styles and methods are also vital. You have to work in a way that suits your mentee so you can get the best out of them – not to your own preferences.
Can anyone be a mentor, or does it take a specific type of person?
I don't think it's for everyone. It takes a person who has empathy and who genuinely wants to help others. Someone who finds energy and inspiration in seeing other people grow.
Though, as a mentor, you can get a lot out of mentoring too, it always has to come back to the mentee and their needs. You're there to share your skills and knowledge and be a brain to pick – you shouldn't have an agenda or focus on your own personal gain. The benefits for the mentor need to be a side-effect of doing amazing mentoring, not a driver.
I've seen mentors who push their mentees down a specific route because it's in the mentor's interests, or they've assumed they know best rather than exploring all the options available. It's a fluke if this approach leads to the best outcome.
How does being mentored benefit business owners specifically?
It makes you reflect more on your development and skills, and you can build your skills and confidence in so many areas, including leadership, communication, time management and building relationships. You find out where you're strong, and new areas you might want to explore.
And personally, what do you get out of mentoring?
I'm a lifelong learning addict, and coaching/mentoring has opened up a tremendous number of areas for self-development, all of which I'm embracing. It's given me a real sense of purpose by allowing me to make a difference – something I hadn't realised I was missing after leaving my roles in education.
I do like to get involved in as much as I can, as it fuels my energy and ideas. I get bored way too easily, and I am a very restless person. So having a break in my day to mentor someone gives me a much-needed change of pace. It's a very different style of creativity and flow compared to my other work.
What's the best thing about being a mentor, and what's the biggest challenge?
The best thing is when you get to see a lightbulb moment. When something switches in your mentee's mind, and they have an insight. Also, seeing someone actually give themselves permission to do the thing they want to do – so often it's ourselves and our fears that are holding us back. The excited messages I've had from mentees after sessions when they've pushed through is such an amazing thing to see.
For me, one of the biggest challenges is finding the time alongside running three businesses; a couple of them of which are in big transition phases. And also, due to my health issues, I'm balancing the start of treatment and side effects and having to find a whole new rhythm to my days and the ways in which I work.
What are your hopes for the Help to Grow: Management Course?
That it will continue to grow itself and be the support for business owners that I wish I'd had starting out, and that it'll help people move on from employment to establish thriving, sustainable businesses.
Sadly, self-employment still isn't regarded the same as employment, and there are many ways in which business owners aren't supported. But programmes like these are bridging the gap and helping to make progress all the time.
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.