The vast majority of business owners and managers we encounter have “come off the tools”, usually from the grassroots of their sector and built their business from the bottom up, with skill, tenacity and a lot of hard graft.  Firms that spring to mind include construction companies, lift companies, M&E companies, architects, surveyors, printers, IT companies… the list is long.  The magnificent individuals who have developed themselves and their firms are most often products of the school of hard knocks rather than the multidisciplinary, multidepartment graduate development routes so beloved of the corporate world.

The upside is that these people have got their finger on the pulse and, technically, no one is pulling the wool over their eyes.  But the (potential) downside is that this route sometimes results in an impoverished view of management. 

Being the top guy (or gal) is a very lonely job, you can’t actually talk to many people about key decisions and the inevitable fears that sometimes surround them.  One of the most resonating comments I heard many years ago was, because of this technical bias, “generally, the SME business owner doesn’t know what the SME business owner doesn’t know”.  This is certainly not a case of neglect or deliberate ignorance; it seems to me to be more case of exposure. They haven’t been exposed to some of the thinking, tools and techniques that could help in the longer run.

This is a problem because things change. Just look at the last couple of years! Directors and owners must keep raising their game, having their thinking usefully challenged for the good of themselves and their organisations.  We are often making decisions about matters we’ve never encountered before; reacting to massive and instantaneous market shifts (including, but not restricted to, those precipitated by the pandemic), taking over a competitor, defending a supplier’s legal challenge, resolving a knotty HR issue, having to deal with difficult directors.  Again, the list is long.

Some of the hard skills that might be missing include; strategic analysis, competition assessment, marketing and sales strategy, financial management all pretty crucial … some of the equally critical, but often undervalued, softer skills might include; an understanding of different leadership styles, motivation profiles, team working, team building and even neuro linguistic programming.

So, what to do?

As many will testify, being very very “unsporty”, it staggers me how many of you are passionate about sports… and pretty much all sports stars have a coach.  Even those at the peak of their power.  It is therefore striking how poorly this coach approach translates to the business world.  I can count on one hand the number of clients that have a formal coach or mentor, but those that do, usually significantly outperform those that don’t.

The coach approach

Coaching can come in two slightly different guises: coaching and mentoring.  The first point to note is that coaching and mentoring are both fundamentally different to managing.  Coaching and mentoring whilst similar in many respects are also fundamentally different to each other.  Both call for the coach or mentor to listen and allow the individuals to think through problems and work issues for themselves, both act as guide rather than manager.

Coaches should be great at providing feedback and closing gaps in specific leadership and managerial skills and practises, but a mentor is likely to have gone further.  The mentor will have “been there, seen it, done it and got the T shirt” usually in a business similar to your own.  They might be typically 10 to 15 years ahead of those that they are mentoring.  Additionally, mentors may be serving on multiple boards providing a wider and deeper “hands on” experience.  Similarly, coaches will usually have multiple clients in different sectors providing them with a different and perhaps more panoramic view of the business world.

The mentor will have all the experience skills for an organisation close to your own but may still be lacking in some of the formal leading and management coaching skills.  A coach should have the formal leading and management skills but may lack sector specific knowledge.

Making it work

Probably the number one criteria for making coaching and mentoring work is the need to give up the idea that because you are the boss YOU have to know everything.  On one hand, to some extent, you need to submit to the process. On the other hand, it can be a huge relief to find somebody completely impartial to talk to with your best interests at heart.

In order to make it work properly there also need to be some rules of engagement.  Number one is that both parties will properly prepare for the meetings.  Other rules are likely to include no slippage and formal agendas, the content of which should be driven by the individual being coached.  Information needs to be shared in advance so proper preparation can be undertaken, as coaching and mentoring “on the hoof” is unlikely to deliver the best results.


Sharing war stories can provide a significant psychological boost especially when the storytelling provided is way beyond the learner’s expectations… it simply helps harden the belief that it’s actually possible to do anything. 

At a very generic level there is nearly always an improvement in individual performance.  Other more specific benefits might include:

  • An increased willingness to learn and develop new skills
  • An increased ability to identify solutions
  • More openness to feedback and change
  • Greater clarity in roles and objectives

It also builds your confidence to stretch your own (assumed) limitations often resulting in more enjoyment from the work.

A coach or mentor will effectively take the “grandfather role” and should become an innocent third party used to trigger better thinking and better decisions.

How does this fit with my management system?

There is no direct link between coaching and mentoring and any kind of ISO management system. There are however a number of indirect links to do with training and competence most of which is usually geared at the training and competence of the operational staff.  However, we’d take the view that this limiting view of competence impoverishes the benefits that can be obtained from any of the common management system standards (Quality – ISO 9000, Environmental – ISO 14000, Information security – ISO 27000 and Health and Safety – ISO 45000) all of which require companies to manage and develop the competence of their staff.  Including the boss.


It’s not usually articulated this way but running a business is a high stakes game.  Coaching and mentoring provides an excellent way to preserve your dignity whilst learning and benefiting from the experience of others.  Coaching and mentoring is about managing under that pressure and getting you to where you want to go faster than you might do otherwise.

There are some things you can only really discuss openly and privately when you disclose all of your fears and concerns with someone who is trusted and experienced but outside of the business; you get seasoned counsel and feedback.

Appointing a coach or mentor gives you the opportunity to seek advice without worrying about your reputation being tarnished, you have the chance to share privately the inner concerns which we all have when presented with difficult situations.

As your mother suggested, a problem shared is a problem halved.  And coaching and mentoring allows you to put in place formal systems and processes that help you know you are making the right decisions.

Related tools and ideas

Recommended references

  • Action Coach – the biggest coaching organisation worldwide

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