Leeds Business School

Using simulation to develop business mentoring and strategic capability amongst entrepreneurs

Developing business strategy skills to sustain and support the growth of start-up firms in an increasingly complex, uncertain and volatile environment can be a risky challenge.

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As part of the MentorCert project we developed an innovative workshop using business simulation software to facilitate the development of key mentoring and strategy skills. Participants worked in small teams (3-4 people) to formulate and agree business strategy and make decisions. The simulation software modelled business performance and after each ‘round’ of decision-making, the teams had the opportunity to reflect, learn and re-set strategy as new challenges emerged.

The workshop provided an opportunity for practitioners to interact and explore emerging theories and practice in this specialist field.   The event surfaced many issues including the need for business mentors to reflect on and make meaningful choices on their practice so that they can make a more substantial contribution to their mentee’s development. A key was to look way beyond the mentees bottom line so that substantial personal and business change was possible.

The simulation presented considerable challenges for participants and moved several out of their comfort zone. Immediately following the introduction to the simulation, participants variously reported ‘feeling overwhelmed’ or ‘unnerved by the complexity of it all’. Such feelings may be familiar to many entrepreneurs at various points in their working lives.

As the workshop progressed, participants were introduced to selected business strategy tools and able to practice and improve strategy skills as well as reflect on the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship in a dynamic and challenging simulated environment. Participants were able to explore and apply new business strategy and mentoring techniques, put theories to the test, see what works, and become more innovative in their approach to supporting mentee problem solving.

Facilitators shared their experiences and provided alternative perspectives of what effective business mentoring looks and feels like. Key was gaining insights “from the others side” providing simple but highly informative perspectives of what realty worked for them in practice and providing mentees with the space to stop, think and reflect on where they are and where they need to go. Often this meant asking difficult questions to help the mentee surface alternate options and paths so that they and their business can grow.

The workshop surfaced the importance of ‘presence’ - of being fully in the conversation and maintaining a state of personal and transparent self-awareness of the events that surround a business mentor-mentee relationship. One can suggest that this has relevance in being an authentic business mentor and how to pay deep attention to what exactly their mentee is saying. This can provide a route to understand what Tim Gallwey called the ‘Inner Game’ with less focus on a mechanistic process and becoming much more aware of a mentees needs. The challenge here is to be in ‘the mentoring moment’ and explore the rich dialogue within the event, dialogue that can provide deep insight as to a mentees needs.

This raised state of attention by a mentor not only demonstrates a deep and meaningful concern and empathy towards the mentee and what they are saying but also builds trust by creating a felt and lived experience. Here a mentor can provide a mentee with uninterrupted time to talk and the space to think and reflect on what they are saying. A mentor can support this through deep listening with central focus towards the mentee and a repertoire of empowering questions.

The workshop also surfaced the importance of the subtle art form of asking questions. Questions themselves have many different purposes and take multiple forms, and it is something a mentor needs to practice to build their expertise and this is why being present is so important to reflect on what and how questions are asked and the responses that are made. This is not just listening to the words but the pauses, nuances and inflections in a mentee’s voice and providing enough time for a mentee to reflect on their answers.

Questions can be used to circle around a business strategy problem, probe deeper into hidden issues, explore or pose paradoxes and alternatives, provide greater clarity, hone possible solutions and encourage reflection. However, the key here is not just the question but the attention given to a response as it can directly contribute to the improvement of the quality of the mentees thinking and enable more effective buy-in and engagement into the mentoring process. By building a meaningful and authentic dialogue a business mentor can provide a mentee with a place where they build their strategic capability and find answers to the challenges they face within themselves.

Further information about the MentorCert project can be found here.

Dr Nicholas Beech

Course Director / Leeds Business School

Nick’s expertise is in the areas of leadership, coaching, governance and boardroom behaviours. He has a wealth of experience having worked with a wide range of organisations across the private, public and voluntary sectors. An accomplished entrepreneur, having sound local and international experience and is an inspiring organisational change agent.

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