Luke Johnson: A mentor is hard to find

Mentors can be extremely useful in business, but it takes real luck to find a good one.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2012

Does mentoring really work? I have never really had such a formal arrangement - a long-term relationship with a wise veteran who could offer advice and encouragement. Yet many entrepreneurs swear by them. Sometimes I feel such guidance would have been helpful for me and would have perhaps stopped me making quite so many mistakes.

The website is a useful initiative by the big five banks. It acts as an online gateway for small companies looking for mentors. These appear to be firms offering services rather than simply experienced individuals who are happy to counsel start-ups. The website is part of the banks' defence against criticism that they aren't lending to industry: it is certainly a lot more worthwhile than the poorly conceived Business Growth Fund - but that's another story.

I have found that business partners and non-executive directors can act as sounding boards, but no doubt mentors provide something rather different. I am approached occasionally to act as a mentor, but I turn down such requests because I don't feel I am able to commit enough time to them.

Ideally, such involvements happen with someone you know, are mutually beneficial, and free. But coming across exactly the right person, who is generous enough to devote a few hours every month - that takes real luck. So networks like the one above are probably the answer.

The battle between the generations is a profound conflict that will dominate the coming decades.

My cohort has been the lucky generation. Many of us have defined benefit pensions; we have homes that soared in value; we have experienced close to full employment for decades and suffered nothing like the international competition for jobs and resources that the west now faces. Moreover, we baby-boomers appear rather less keen to pass our assets on to our children than people were previously - we want to spend our savings on cruises, cosmetic surgery and second homes.

By contrast, those under 35 have almost no net assets, bleak job prospects, many cannot afford to get on the housing ladder and few have any chance of securing a final salary pension. They face rising taxes to pay for their parents' health care into great old age and issues over natural resources and climate change. Their only hope is inheritance.

To an extent, low interest rates are the revenge of the young on the old. They mean it is cheaper for first-timers to borrow and buy a home, while savers, who are usually older, get pathetic returns on their money. Such indirect transfers between the ages are necessary to rebalance society's wealth.

The row over a possible mansion tax is an example of a skirmish in the demographic war.

I oppose such a burden largely for selfish reasons, but I do sympathise with those a few decades younger than me. No one actively earned any house price appreciation in the last quarter century - it was an unrepeatable windfall.

State-engineered redistribution via the tax system is not the answer, because the government will squander and misdirect the money as it flows through Whitehall's coffers. But, unquestionably, a dynamic culture needs the bolder young generation to gain a fair degree of control over the levers before they become too old and risk-averse. Japan is an example of a gerontocracy: declining birth rates, a stagnant economy - a focus on preservation rather than experimentation. At all costs, Britain must avoid such a dismal future and by various means shift resources towards those who would create new companies, jobs and better prospects - the younger generation.

Every year I attend strategy days and brainstorming sessions for some of the organisations with which I'm engaged. I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that they are mostly a complete waste of time.

The internet has compounded the idea that crowd sourcing is the way to devise new concepts. But the truth is that few of us have our best ideas in a group. We require seclusion and reflection to concentrate. Too often, teams are dominated by those with the loudest voices - who aren't necessarily the most insightful participants. Radical suggestions tend to be crushed by consensus. Obvious and safe choices are made because a pack will always veer towards the easy middle.

I doubt many creative breakthroughs happened in meetings. Scientific discoveries, inventions, literature, music, art - rarely are these the product of many minds working together. Rather they were produced by individuals with special talents - often introverts - working in solitude.

Moreover, I think such quiet periods of deep thought are good for the mind. Blocking out noise and interruptions for an extended period is healthy and enables one to examine a problem in great detail - and perhaps find a solution.

Susan Cain has just published a terrific new book on this subject called Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking. I recommend it to anyone who is sick of shouty idiots who dominate all too many offices but are in fact empty vessels with nothing of value to say.

And me? I'd say I am 70/30 extrovert/introvert.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

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