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When Richard Branson founded Virgin Atlantic and began offering cut-price flights all over Europe, he was coming into the market cold.
He had no experience running a cut-price airline, or taking on the big players in the market but his mentor, Sir Freddie Laker, did.
In 1977, Laker had founded the Laker Skytrain, the first low-fare, long-haul airline which ran flights between London and New York, then later also to Miami and Los Angeles. He was eventually forced out of business by the big players – then Pan Am, TWA and British Airways – but he passed his skills on to the young Branson when he was embarking on what would become a worldwide cut-price airline venture.
Laker warned the young entrepreneur that he’d need to be cheaper than his rivals, offer better service and be prepared to defend his business in the media, through the government and in the courts.
So valuable was this advice that Branson eventually named one of his planes the Spirit of Sir Freddie and to this day speaks of his business mentor and friend in glowing terms.
Finding the right business mentor and the right structure for the relationship can literally mean the difference between a successful growing business and a stagnant career or enterprise.
Most senior executives have a business mentor for brief or extended periods during crucial times in their careers and there are a number of programs that seek to match mentors with entrepreneurs and executives at different stages of their careers.
Rachael Dalton, chief information officer at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, discovered this when she embarked on the Connections leadership program run through Women in Technology. The program combines training sessions, an ongoing mentoring relationship and the active support of senior management.
“We began the program with four days spread across four months as well as a one-on-one mentoring session with someone who’d been chosen and matched specifically to each participant,” Dalton says. “I realised that my expectations were a little far-fetched and that I don’t actually need to know where I’m going as much as I need to be able to take opportunities as they come along.”
Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute executive general manager Hilary Bolton says the course has provided Dalton with greater self-awareness and a greater capacity to manage the different personalities in her team. Crucially the program stressed the importance of winning the support of the participant’s managers and as a result, Bolton actively encouraged Dalton’s participation.
“The good thing about this program is that is has been consistent and structured in its approach and it’s been tailored to Rachael’s role within this organisation,” Bolton says. “It’s been able to adapt to her leadership style and is very focused on achieving what she needs to achieve as part of her role.”
Management consultancy Resurgence created the Connections program as a way to create a mentoring and career development program designed specifically for women in industries where they are under-represented. After working in senior management at companies such as Telstra, the program’s creator, Negba Weiss-Dolev, says the fundamentals are the same whether they are applied to women or men.
“Basically I got tired of everyone whingeing that there weren’t any programs out there so I put one together,” Weiss-Dolev says. “We needed something that was practical and dealt with the challenges that women, in particular, face when it comes to progressing their careers.
“We wanted something that would produce enduring changes in behaviour and in the careers of the participants, not a two- or three-day course that happens outside work and has no real effect on the way you operate in the end.”
Suzi Dafnis, community director with the Australian Businesswomen’s Network says the success of a mentoring relationship requires a curriculum or set of objectives that should be determined and followed so that there is a clear progression for both participants.
“There’s informal mentoring but really it’s more like brainstorming or more of an advisory role,” Dafnis says.
“Mentoring is really about matching people according to what they need and not just because they are in the same industry and it’s not enough to match people by exchanging their numbers and leaving it up to them.”
The Australian Businesswomen’s Network provides a six-month business coaching program to female entrepreneurs that involves regular meetings and the drafting of marketing and business plans.
“Mentoring done with a curriculum gives a clear objective to the business owner as well as the mentor,” Dafnis says. “And just because someone is a good manager it does not make them a good mentor, a mentor also needs to be prepared to support the vision and aspiration of the business.”
Robert Knapp, business mentor and executive coach with Mentum Executive Empowerment, says the key to a good mentor is the capacity to unlock the knowledge and skills the executive or business owner has but is unable to bring to bear.
“A lot of people are technicians, they are very good at their jobs but they are not necessarily very good at running a business,” Knapp says. “A business mentor needs to be a good listener, most of these people already know the answers to their questions, it’s no use just to tell them what to do or you end up running the business for them, you actually need to get them to come up with the answers themselves.”
Knapp says his role is to “turn on” these skills and help his clients see their businesses more clearly so as to understand the problems and how they could be tackled.
What are the characteristics of a good coach/mentor?