Good chemistry

As several trade bodies are launching their own mentoring programmes, most recently Bristol Media with Bristol Media Mentors, Angus Montgomery considers the advantages of these schemes for both mentors and mentees

As Jon Kingsbury, director of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts’ creative economy programme, says, the design industry is a fertile environment for professional mentoring schemes. The sector is dominated by small consultancies set up by practitioners frequently lacking formal business skills. Those who don’t work for big networks often have to look outside their own consultancies for advice and many studio owners are too wrapped up in their own practice to think strategically about their own business.

Kingsbury says, ’With all the creative talent in the UK, why doesn’t it have its own Pixar or Disney?’ He adds, ’The sector is characterised by highly creative but very small businesses – in some cases they do have the high-growth potential to make it big. But many creative businesses don’t grow to scale – lots of people just like being a practitioner, they need business help and tailored support in order to grow.’

As well as numerous professional mentors operating in the design industry, trade bodies are also picking up on this avenue of training. The Design Council has operated the Next Net mentoring programme, Nesta is running the Creative Business Mentor Network, Bristol Media has just launched its Bristol Media Mentors scheme, and the Design Business Association has plans for its own mentoring programme.

Mike Hurley, president of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, defines mentoring as ’a developmental process, which may involve a transfer of skill or knowledge from a more experienced person to a less experienced, through learning dialogue and role modelling’.

This loose definition can lead to mentoring schemes taking many different shapes and forms. Nesta’s Creative Business Mentor Network is a face-to-face process which sees the mentor and mentee meet at set times for a year, while the Bristol Media Mentors scheme, in its initial phases, sees a panel of selected mentors answering questions put to them online.

The Nesta scheme is designed to be ’as light-touch as possible’, says Kingsbury. He says regulating the process is less important than getting the right people to be mentors and mentees. ’Once you get the selection and matchmaking right that’s the main thing – the mentor and the mentee have to have chemistry.’

Kingsbury adds, ’We frontload the help and support for the mentor at the beginning, so that they are very clear what is needed. We also advise mentees on how to get the best out of the process and the opportunity available.’

Mentoring’s benefits to mentees are obvious – if the process works well they get access to sage and objective advice from top industry figures. As part of Nesta’s programme, mentee Jason Bruges Studio was paired up with mentor Mike Kelly, managing director of entertainment-sector accountant Northern Alliance. Jason Bruges Studio managing director Zena Bruges says, ’We didn’t want a mentor to tell us what to do, but we wanted someone who would be available as a sounding-board.’

Jason Bruges Studio and Kelly are meeting for a two-hour period every month for a year. Bruges says, ’What has been incredibly useful for us is that the process has forced us to consider the business at a strategic level. If we know we’re talking to Mike once a month we have to think about it and prepare for it. It gives us a structure for thinking strategically about the business.’

But the benefits for mentors are slightly less self-evident, apart, obviously, from the satisfaction of doing a good turn. Hurley pinpoints some of the upsides as developing communication skills and allowing mentors to revisit their knowledge and skills. Kingsbury adds that other benefits include developing new contacts, and the opportunity for the mentor to give something back to their industry.

Felicity Kelly, managing director of Duttons Design, is on the panel of Bristol Media Mentors. She says that as well as providing the opportunity to pass on knowledge and experience and ’position yourself as one of the greybeards’, mentoring also ’makes you review things – it provides quite a nice discipline of consolidation’.

Kingsbury says the Nesta scheme will run for at least another year and that the results will be published and shared. He adds, ’Ours is not the only mentoring programme in the creative industries, and we want to be able to share our lessons throughout the sector.’

The benefits of mentoring

For mentees:

  • Improved performance
  • An ability to undertake self-directed learning
  • Greater confidence
  • Someone to bounce ideas off in a risk-free environment
  • When changes are taking place, a mentor will provide stability for the mentee

For mentors:

  • An opportunity to put something back into the industry or community
  • Helps new relationships to be formed
  • Develops the mentor’s communication skills
  • Allows mentors to update their skills

From Mike Hurley, president of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council

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