Ben Bierman
JOHANNESBURG - There is no shortage of business advice in the world. It comes in the form of consultants, coaches, advisors, professors, self-help guides and internet research.

However, there is a special breed of business adviser who are worth their weight in gold: the business mentor. Author and speaker, John C. Maxwell says one of their greatest values is their ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.The distinction between a mentor and an adviser is subtle. 

The mentor can play any role from that of a strategic adviser to a technical expert or consultant.Ordinary business consultants usually have a clinical approach coming into a business to solve a specific problem and impart formal, defined pieces of knowledge or procedural know-how.

Mentor however strive to impart wisdom beyond textbook learning to own experiences. A consultant can be a fresh-faced graduate with an MBA. A mentor can also have an MBA, but can only be someone with experience earned in the real business world – experience that can prove to be a valuable asset to a growing entrepreneur. 

While consultants are common, good mentors are rare. They are not produced by business schools, but are forged through years of experience in the business world where they have developed a passion to see other entrepreneurs succeed.

Any business owner who comes across such an individual would do well to build and maintain a relationship with them. Just because mentorship has qualitative aspects that are difficult to define, it does not mean that the relationship with an entrepreneur should be vague. There is nothing wrong with meeting socially for a heart-to-heart talk with a retired business owner. But if an entrepreneur wants the mentor to do serious business intervention, a formal, clear business agreement works best. The agreement should include a scope of work, a time line, measurable outcomes and defined tasks.

Entrepreneurs however should note that because good mentors are intensely invested in the success of the businesses that they help, they do not easily tolerate their advice being ignored. Some mentors who work for a success fee insist on a clause giving them the right to walk away from the business if the entrepreneur does not listen to his advice.

As such, it is often useful to have a facilitator who can get the relationship between the mentor and the entrepreneur off to a good start. 

Time and again when the arrangement between the mentor and entrepreneur is clear, and when the human chemistry between the two works, the results can be spectacular. For example, businesses on the verge of bankruptcy can be turned around and propelled to a whole new level.

Long after the first intervention arranged, the relationship often lasts and grows, with the mentor sometimes becoming a board member, and very often a long-term confidant and friend.

Where can a business owner find a business mentor: 

As Business Partners Limited, we offer support to small enteprises through our Mentorship Support Services and Technical Assistance Programme. The programme harnesses the business expertise, skills and wisdom of over 360 senior business and professional people – often retired executives, making their services available to entrepreneurs. The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) also has a Volunteer Enterprise Mentorship Programme that provides mentorship support to youth businesses and The Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) provides support to entrepreneurs through business consulting, training and referrals to specialist service providers. 

Entrepreneurs would do themselves a favour by becoming familiar with their websites.

Ben Bierman is the managing director at Business Partners Limited. 

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.