What can a business coach or mentor do for your small business?


By Reed Richardson


Entrepreneurs, by their nature, prefer going it alone. Listening to others tell them what can or can't be done just isn't part of their DNA-that's why they hung out their own shingle in the first place. Still, even the most self-assured and independent-minded small business owner can look for a little outside guidance, a simple sounding board, or maybe just a bit of ‘been there, done that'-type wisdom at times. That's when a business coach or mentor can be of help. But how does an entrepreneur swamped with what feels like a million other tasks find that someone and when is a good time to seek such assistance out? To get some answers, read on.


What is the difference between a business coach, mentor, and consultant?


While all three terms-coach, mentor, and consultant-can at times be used synonymously, there are generally accepted differences in what each will and will not do for a small business.


Typically, a mentor is a businessperson more senior or experienced than the entrepreneur seeking help, preferably someone who ran or is running their own small business, possibly in the same or a similar profession or industry. Mentor/mentee relationships are usually informal and non-binding, with the former volunteering to lend a friendly ear and some anecdotal advice to the latter. As a result, mentors are free of inherent conflicts of interest-they're not trying to sell you their services-but, then again, there's no real sense of accountability either. Interactions between a mentor and mentee often occur infrequently-over an occasional lunch or during a late-evening phone call, say-and can range from very broad discussions about strategy to incredibly specific questions about things like operational or sales tactics.


Business coaches, by contrast, represent a formal step up from mentors. Typically, they are hired by and work for the client in a professional capacity, much like an attorney or accountant. As such, they are paid a commensurate rate for their services-typically ranging anywhere from $150 to $1,000 an hour. As with mentors, businesses coaches can help the entrepreneur deal with big-picture or in-the-weeds issues (or both) and they usually maintain a one-on-one counseling relationship with an individual, remaining apart from the day-to-day interactions of the client's business. They can challenge your conventions, make periodic recommendations, and facilitate solutions, but in the end a coach's real goal to is to empower a client so they can achieve their desired business goals on their own.


Bringing in a professional consulting firm is a much more complicated and less common occurrence in the small business world, since the significant costs and the highly intrusive footprint involved rarely matches up well with the balance sheet and the independent ethos of most start-ups. Consultants also differ from mentors and coaches in that they typically work for their clients on a temporary or project basis; their mission is to come in, fix a problem, and move on, not build a long-term one-on-one relationship. (For more on these differences, check out this online video: http://feedroom.businessweek.com/?fr_story=e0efcb33f1d1c57c34527fbe15a81499971e72cb)


When is a good time to seek out a coach or mentor for a small business?


There is no right or wrong answer for when an entrepreneur should seek out a mentor or business coach. It's really all about what feels right for your situation. Many start-ups go from a one-person, home-based side business to a bustling, full-time small company with dozens of employees without ever once talking with a coach or mentor. Other entrepreneurs may lean upon the advice of a mentor or coach from the earliest brainstorming stages, long before they ever formally launch their business. Most often though, an entrepreneur's mentoring or coaching needs arise when a change (or lack thereof) in their small business's circumstances don't align with their particular business skill set.


For example, a software engineer with a great idea for the next "killer app" may be strong on the technical aspects of his potential product, but may lack confidence when it comes to launching his own company to bring that new product to market. In this case, he might be well served to seek out an experienced small business mentor from the very beginning, someone who can talk knowledgably about the broader planning, managing, and operational issues involved with starting a business. On the other hand, consider an entrepreneur who has been running a small company for several years but still hasn't achieved the sales and revenue growth she initially expected. Feeling locked into an endless cycle of sameness, she might be a good candidate to formally hire a professional business coach, one who has a demonstrated expertise in specific business functions like increasing profitability, streamlining productivity, or improving time management.


Whatever your timing and reasons, to really get the most out of a mentor or coaching experience, it's critical that you be able to define what you want them to help you and your business achieve down the road. At the outset, however, it's not uncommon for these objectives to be very loosely defined and more emotional than financial or operational in nature-like simply wanting to regain a feeling of control or to reignite that motivational spark that prompted you to start a business in the first place. From this vague starting point, a good coach should be able to drill down to the underlying business issues contributing to those feelings and then help you develop a concrete action plan to overcome or correct them.



How do I find a mentor or business coach?


Finding a business mentor or coach is easy, perhaps too easy. Practically unheard of a generation ago, the profession of business coaching has grown astronomically since, with more than 20,000 people worldwide now defining themselves as a full-time "business coach." As a result, if you plug that phrase into a search engine, you'll be overwhelmed with responses, each one with a different pitch, spiel, or specialty. Some of these so-called coaches are of questionable legitimacy and experience, however, having earned their credentials by simply paying a small fee and/or sitting through a weekend seminar rather than having spent years running their own business. As a result, an entrepreneur should perform considerable due diligence before hiring any outside expert for help. Reputable business coaches understand this and usually agree to a free initial consultation to ensure there is a good fit between coach and client.


To further separate the worthy from the worthless business coaches, experts recommend choosing a professional that has been credentialed by one of the professional's trade organizations, like the International Coach Federation (http://www.coachfederation.org/) or the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches (http://www.wabccoaches.com/). Both of these groups have widgets on their websites that will allow you to find a coach using various search criteria, from geographical location to subject matter expertise.


For those entrepreneurs who can't afford coaching sessions at several hundred dollars an hour, though, there are still many opportunities to get valuable business mentoring for little or no cost. Perhaps the best of these opportunities involves the non-profit Service Corps of Retired Executives, or SCORE, which is now in its 46th year. With 364 chapters and more than 12,400 veteran business owners as members, SCORE counselors provide tens of thousands of small business owners with free mentoring on a range of topics both large and small each year. (SCORE also offers a handy 60-second guide to finding the right business coach on its website: http://www.score.org/60_guide_business_coach.html)


One newer, mentoring option specifically aimed at helping small business owners involves the website MicroMentor (https://www.micromentor.org/). This free online service is an offshoot of the non-profit community development organization MercyCorps. MicroMentor acts as a volunteer online meeting place for existing small business owners to both seek advice and share expertise as mentee and/or mentor.


In addition, each U.S. state offers a Small Business Development Center (http://www.asbdc-us.org/), run in partnership with the federal Small Business Administration. These SBDCs are typically housed within the business schools of a public university or on the campus of a local community college, but, despite their academic location, their primary mission is to provide training and mentoring to private-sector entrepreneurs. (To find a SBDC office in your state, go here: http://www.sba.gov/aboutsba/sbaprograms/sbdc/sbdclocator/index.html)

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