The Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Learning Lab recently hosted a panel discussion around coaching and mentoring, aiming to help players in this space discuss challenges and share ideas.
This topic is especially pertinent at the moment because the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation is in the process of developing a venture coaching playbook, explained Jalal Ghiassi-Razavi, Association Director. This document has been created in recognition of the value of support; as Jalal observes, quality output relies upon quality input. This is why the Foundation has a pipeline of around 150 programme participants receiving coaching and mentorship at any given time.
Jalal noted that support can’t end with the business. Coaches need to understand when the individual needs assistance, too. However, not all coaching or mentorship is the same. For instance, while one coach may be able to offer a wonderfully broad network, another may have unrivaled subject matter knowledge, and yet another may be able to assist with accessing funds. The question, therefore, is knowing how to match coaches with entrepreneurs, and understanding which model will suit them best.
The playbook aims to provide a guide to such subjects, while also helping to standardize coaching procedures and sharing best practices. Topics covered in the playbook include, amongst others, methodologies, setting up and managing expectations and obtaining buy-in, defining what a mentor is, measuring KPIs and matching needs.
The playbook is scheduled to be released during the third quarter of 2021.
The Panel Discussion
AGOF assembled a panel comprising key ecosystem members to discuss the nuances of mentorship versus coaching. Panel members included Josh Adler, Executive Director of the Anzisha Prize, Amina Patterson, Head of Operations at Alpha Code, and Octavius Phukubye, managing director of IDF Value Added Services.
Panelists were first asked to explain their coaching models and to describe the difference between coaching and mentoring.
According to Amina, Alpha Code’s emphasis is on mentoring, because the relationship between entrepreneurs and their mentors is a long-term one that may start during the initial 12-week introduction to the organisation, but continues well beyond this point. Leveraging their strategic mindset and experience, the mentor acts as an accountability partner, guiding the entrepreneur away from potential pitfalls. They may also function as a connector, helping to create opportunities by putting the entrepreneur in touch with other members of their network, as well as a problem-solver. They are also therapists and psychologists because although they are vested in the entrepreneur’s business, they understand that you cannot remove the personal component. Amina explained that the mentors work closely with learning managers to unpack their deliverables. They also provide their input into the programme, keeping in mind what the business is trying to achieve from a strategic perspective. Importantly, although the entrepreneur may work with several different people who have expertise in specific areas, there is always a primary anchor mentor who leads the process. This prevents the feeling that they are being pulled in different directions by multiple stakeholders and helps them maintain focus.
For Josh, meanwhile, it makes more sense to focus on coaching, because this is what the organisation tries to do while working to increase the number of entrepreneurs in South Africa: it views entrepreneurship as a team sport, it coaches individuals to understand the rules of the game and the league where they fit in. He is concerned that many especially young entrepreneurs may struggle to consolidate and implement ideas given to them by mentors who ‘dump’ these ideas without trying to contextualise them or make sense of them within the entrepreneur’s unique circumstances or environment. He prefers to see the coach, not as a therapist or decision-maker, but that each intervention is highly dependent on context.
At IDF, the question is not one of names and semantics, but rather it’s about focusing on a process that will ensure that entrepreneurs are matched precisely with a strategist who can play across the entire value chain and can help them improve their characters while also positioning the business to move forward. Key questions include whether the mentor, sponsor, or coach has the right trait or personality to provide this kind of assistance. The IDF uses a combination of tailored interventions to make this approach work because it takes the view that there is no such thing as a one size fits all solution – each start-up is different in terms of its market, product and complexity, and this is especially true for businesses in the tech space compared to non-tech startups. However, all coaching interventions must share in common deliberateness and intentionality, because without structure, deliverables, and a framework, they cannot be successful.
Panelists were then asked to discuss what measures they had found to be successful. For Josh, the answer to this question changes as startups mature. In the very beginning, coaching should focus more on building confidence and entrepreneurialism – at this stage, the business idea matters less than the quality of the individual’s thinking and how they relate to their teammates. Confidence-building at this point is vital because there is a lot of intolerance towards the idea of entrepreneurship as a career, he explains. Josh also said that it’s important for a coach to work according to a framework. Without a structure, it is difficult for people to feel that they are moving forward. However, the coach may have to tweak their frameworks to suit individuals and their particular strengths and areas of improvement.
Judging whether an individual is an effective coach is not vastly different from assessing a teacher’s prowess, Josh continued. In the case of teachers, the students’ improvement is a critical marker of success. The same holds true for coaches; if they are doing their jobs properly, it will be possible to see the business growing and improving in various areas.
Josh also maintains that one of the best ways of keeping coaches accountable is by developing a routine so that entrepreneurs have a sense of what is expected from them. It’s easy for a coach to say that an entrepreneur is not adequately engaged if they miss their session, when in fact it could be that the coach is not performing. Simple reporting along key metrics is also key, as with any business.
Amina admits that it can be challenging to measure the support provided by coaches because each entrepreneur has different requirements, depending on where they are in their journey. For example, the challenge facing mentors working with younger entrepreneurs is often helping them to maintain their focus, while more seasoned business owners tend to be more resilient throughout the process. This is why Alpha Code emphasizes the accountability of the entrepreneur throughout the journey. This is achieved by setting entrepreneurs a series of exercises, all related to their businesses, to help them test whether their assumptions are accurate.
The mentorship team, meanwhile, are responsible for setting ways of working when new stakeholders come into the fold: following a planning session, they decide on the direction to take with the entrepreneur, taking into account factors such as the entrepreneur’s priorities, their risks, and their value proposition – and, importantly, whether they have validated this with their customers, in line with the organisation’s philosophy that “if you don’t document it, it doesn’t exist”.
The mentor’s role throughout this process is rooted in having open, honest conversations with the entrepreneur. Amina says that this is sometimes difficult, because mentors may feel wary of derailing or discouraging an entrepreneur if their feedback is deemed negative. But this is why reporting is so important, she continues – it sets the stage for transparency and lays the foundation for interventions to address and overcome hurdles. She says that there must be an agreement between mentors and entrepreneurs regarding the frequency of the reporting cycle, the frequency of meetings, and proposed interventions and that these agreements must be made early on in the relationship so that expectations are established from the outset and prevent misalignment. If there is, indeed, misalignment, this serves as a red flag that conversations between the two parties are not as honest as they should be, Amina warns.
But the responsibility does not lie solely with the mentor, she adds: entrepreneurs are required to sign a contract, because they have to add value to the process, too.
For Octavius, while the measurement is vital, it’s important that the values measured relate to the business’s improvement and growth, and do not place additional strain on the entrepreneur without actually adding to their development.
The final question posed to panelists was around ethics and values. Octavius agrees that this is critical because ecosystem players are entrusted with building businesses, which means using the resources at their disposal optimally. More than this, they have to establish their credibility. Reporting plays a critical role here – but it is also important that coaches uphold this commitment to ethics because as an intermediary, their behavior and values inevitably impact the behavior and values of entrepreneurs. For this reason, the organisation is always careful to engage coaches with a proven track record. Octavius further pointed out that coaches are to set an example so that entrepreneurs understand that they need to prove due diligence and must always be ready for an audit.
Josh observes that there are two parts to the question of ethics: the first is that the very selection of coaches must be ethical. Although it is always tempting to work with people who are similar to us, this points to selection bias and impedes diversity, and is an issue that must be addressed, especially for organisations operating in Africa.
The second issue is related to coaching itself and is especially important given that young entrepreneurs are especially vulnerable. Josh says that coaches must be careful to make sure they are making suggestions, rather than issuing instructions. Their job, after all, is to give options while ensuring that their mentees maintain agency.
Amina’s perspective is that transparency is crucial at every point of the process. She says that the coaches at Alpha tribe have benefited tremendously in this regard by building a tribe: they meet regularly to share ideas and vent their frustrations (which are inevitable, given the level of emotional involvement that occurs). This is also useful in terms of building networks, which makes the work of the coach easier: for example, if you are unable to solve a problem perhaps you know someone who may be able to provide a connection. In this way, your tribe comes to function as a think tank, and also shares tools. The tribe should also provide feedback, she adds, which is especially valuable given that coaches seldom receive feedback from the entrepreneurs themselves. Amina says that it is very helpful to remember that your style may not be well suited to every entrepreneur and that if you are not able to assist them, it is important, to be honest, and help them connect with someone who can.
Opening the Discussion to the Floor
Following the panel discussion, Ventures’ Manager Simphiwe Mntambo welcomed questions and observations from the floor.
One such observation came from Ian Calvert of Further, who said that the organisation matches entrepreneurs to coaches following a thorough diagnostic which includes a psychometric assessment of the entrepreneur so that their interests are matched with those of coaches.
Meanwhile, Hank van Rensburg of Phoenix Professionals voiced his opinion that entrepreneurs should have access to both a coach and a mentor, as the former will help them work on the operational aspects of the business while the latter attends to personal development requirements.
He warns, though, that as the number of enterprise development programmes in South Africa grows, so does the number of ‘pseudo coaches’, who have tarnished the industry’s image. He also believes that individuals may come to experience coaching fatigue, especially if they belong to more than one programme and therefore consult more than one coach. Linked to this, they may receive so much coaching homework that they have less time to focus on the business’s operational requirements.
Yongama Skweyiya said that a framework can be useful in preventing this coaching fatigue, as it ensures that entrepreneurs are aware of what they should expect from their sessions. He also maintains that mentor fatigue may be linked to misaligned values.
Octavia raised an interesting point regarding what makes a coach successful. Many coaches point to the number of hours invested with entrepreneurs as proof of their success, but this counts for very little if there are few real improvements in the business’s performance, he insists: the competence of the team must be seen to improve, or its margins should increase, for example.
Simphiwe asked whether South African coaches have a global mindset – which Josh answered with a big ‘no’. He said that South Africans tend to be parochial, adding that while most coaches in South Africa have experience in big business, few coaches have worked as entrepreneurs. While this isn’t necessarily negative, he urged coaches to localize the information and insights they offer entrepreneurs, and contextualise it, too, so that it is appropriate for each individual’s situation.