What I know about mentoring: Kathleen Bury

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Despite having alumni spread across 14 countries the UK-based foundation Mowgli is still having to work very hard to get people to understand the importance of mentoring.

Their recently report Nurturing Human Capital: the missing piece of MENA’s entrepreneurship puzzle highlighted the imbalance in the Middle East’s ecosystem.

As CEO of the mentorship network Kathleen Bury has been working in the region and encouraging holistic relationships between entrepreneurs just starting out and experienced business minds.

“If you don’t have somewhere to offload and get support it can be a very lonely journey.”

It’s about tough love. An entrepreneur’s whole life is pretty much tied into their business. And if you don’t support, nurture or strengthen that person, then issues will arise. I define mentoring in this sense as ‘what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear’. Hard truths help them strengthen and grow and build their own leadership internally.

Mentors need to be trained to be mentors. Being an experienced business person doesn’t necessarily make you an ideal mentor. Ego can often come attached to giving advice and is something that isn’t helpful. A mentor needs to be a listener.

Listening is an art. In this region the art of listening isn’t commonplace. Communication is top down - the father tells you what to do or the boss tells you what to - it’s not empowering anybody to build themselves in that process and if you don’t have good listening skills then it’s difficult to become a mentor and a leader.

It’s always personal. The best results I’ve seen have come when a relationship is intertwined on a personal level, when there is vulnerability on both sides and both mentor and mentee open up. In this part of the world it’s often that a mentor doesn’t want to. They have reputations perhaps that they want to ‘protect’ and as such wear masks.

It’s like speed dating. Almost. Don’t just look at ticked boxes on a piece of paper to determine which mentor and mentee would work well together. You’ve got to introduce entrepreneurs and mentors to one another before you match them up. Do a lot of questioning of the candidates on both sides, help them to build trust and at a gathering see who is connecting with who.

Bury addressing a Tamkeen-Mowgli mentoring awareness session in Bahrain this year. (Image via Mowgli)

The mentors network. Entrepreneurs are typically looking for a good network plus financial and business advice that is worldwide. However, we’ve found that when they learn what mentoring is from our perspective, those wants typically subside.  

The Middle East is very good at social networking but not so much at business networking - they’re used to using wasta and family and mentors to help them to develop that skill. You want them to be able to step out on their own rather than relying on the family. Network is key but the mentors need to have trust built before they share that network.

A mentor needs to be committed. If a mentor is going through a personal challenge they won’t be able to give emotional and physical time. You need to be ready for the experience of this. Mowgli stipulates two hours a month minimum, but I know some that meet every week for at least two to three hours. I saw one entrepreneur in Algeria whose mother got sick. The mentor empowered him to take the right decision to focus on the mother and put the business in a position where he could pick it up easily later.

There is no room for ego. If you have a high-level ego you can’t be a mentor. If you’re giving advice with ego attached and the entrepreneur doesn’t take it, then you get offended. Similarly though I am seeing more entrepreneurs with this ego. We’ve got to sift that out.

Mutual benefits are a must. Initially we didn’t track benefits to the mentor, but then started to get feedback from them about the skills they were gaining from their relationships. Very often we found that a mentor could be asking themselves the same questions they were asking their mentees.

The region has a way to go. Mentoring here is always mentioned in the same breath as entrepreneur and yet no one values it enough to invest in it. There isn’t the right value placed on the nurturing needed by an entrepreneur. We’ve been operating in the region for eight years and have only had two or three companies from the region provide funding, otherwise it has all been international governments.

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