Article: June Campbell

The Small Business Library

September 23, 2000

Business Helpers: Consultants, Mentors and Coaches

Ever reached the point where you just don't know how to manage the next stage of your business growth? Or perhaps you know where you want your business to be, but you don't know how to get it there. Or maybe you are struggling with the issues associated with "being your own boss."

When these situations arise, many business operators turn to outside help from consultants, mentors or coaches. These three categories of helpers perform differing functions, although you often find overlapping roles. The nature of your challenge determines the type of helper to be considered.

For example, suppose you have reached a point where you want to invest more cash and less "sweat equity" into business growth. But where should you put your money in order to realize optimum results? A consultant could be a good choice in this situation.

Consultants are contracted for their expertise in a certain area. Typically, you would expect a consultant to investigate, then make recommendations designed to bring about a solution. Be sure the consultant understands your situation, your industry, your budget constraints, and any other factors that are impacting on your operations. Since the rate paid to a consultant is likely to be high, be sure to check references.

For best results, ask for references within your own industry. Consultants, as a body, are not regulated or licensed. However, consultants who belong to a professional body (e.g. accountants, engineers) are required to adhere to the standards outlined by that association.

On the other hand, perhaps you need someone to run ideas by from time to time -- someone to offer feedback about your ideas and help you steer clear of landmines. You might do well to seek a mentor.

Defined as "an experienced and trusted advisor", business mentors provide guidance, suggestions, support to persons with less experience. The mentor concept stems back to Greek mythology when the Gods of Olympus and their muses returned to earth to guide and inspire human heroes.

Today's mentoring arrangements can be professional (paid) or informal (unpaid), long term or short term, peer or non-peer, group or individual, or come from competing or non-competing industries. There are probably as many types of mentoring arrangements as there are mentors and protegees. Mentoring relationships can develop informally between two business acquaintances, or, alternatively, individuals can arrange for fee-based mentoring from companies that offer this service.

Others find mentors in peer groups or mentoring organizations. Some mentoring groups limit membership to individuals from the same industry; others stipulate that members must be from non-competing industries. At group meetings, members pose questions to the group, or offer feedback to those who have invited comments about a certain issue.

Informal mentoring relationships are based on trust.

Perhaps your problem is of a personal nature. Maybe you are having difficulties balancing the demands of business and family life. Or perhaps you work in isolation and are finding it difficult to remain motivated. In this case, a coach could be the answer.

Coaches contract to provide motivational and inspirational sessions on an individual basis. Fee structures and skill levels vary dramatically from person to person.

Certified coaches have received training and have met the standards set out by the training institution. However, since coaches are unregulated, anyone can set up shop and open a coaching practice. You are therefore likely to encounter coaches offering services that include counseling, consulting and mentoring. (If your coach is providing business advice, you will want to be sure that he or she has a successful business background. Having once owned three failed businesses is not a good recommendation!)

Whether using a consultant, a mentor or a coach, your satisfaction will hinge on finding the right person and establishing a good relationship.

June Campbell's writing has appeared in several international print and online publications. Her web site offers a number of resources to small businesses - including guides for proposal writing, business plan development and more.
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