MentorsWork | Helping Business Owners Thrive

November 11, 2022

MentorsWork, an initiative of the Small Firms Association in collaboration with Skillnet Ireland, is helping SMEs across Ireland to improve productivity by ensuring they have the right skills to grow and thrive in an increasingly challenging environment.

The award-winning MentorsWork initiative is a 12-week tailored business support programme which addresses the specific needs of participating companies by providing a range of mentoring and business development tools. The programme begins with a unique online Competency Assessment which benchmarks companies’ skills against a specially developed skills framework and culminates with a bespoke business improvement plan to guide the companies through the following six months.

Launched in 2020, MentorsWork has helped over 1,500 businesses to date. The programme has its origins in an OECD study which revealed a yawning productivity gap between Irish SMEs and their multinational counterparts located in this country, explains MentorsWork Programme Manager Rachael McFarlane.

“It is quite staggering when you put numbers on it,” she adds. “For every €300,000 value add in a multinational company located here, the equivalent figure is €75,000 for an SME. Multinational firms are four times as productive as Irish SMEs. The companies all face the same challenges and the same cost of doing business. Small businesses have disproportionately higher impact on the overall economy than multinationals and our goal is to help them embrace the opportunities presented by a growing economy.”

That goal will be achieved by addressing an SME management skills deficit identified by the SFA Skillnet Network. “It is critical that owner-managers of small businesses have up-to-date organisational and financial skills, including financial literacy, and financial and risk analysis skills, in order to implement the necessary changes to adapt to an ever-evolving business landscape,” says Elizabeth Bowen, Acting Director of the Small Firms Association (SFA).

The skills deficit is a result of the very nature of SME ownership, “SME owners are, generally speaking, the very best employers,” McFarlane points out. “They tend to look after their employees first when it comes to training and development. But they are so busy running their businesses they simply don’t have time for training themselves. They place a high value on training their employees but not for themselves as employers. We designed the MentorsWork programme to address those skills deficits in a structured way that would deliver clear business benefits.”

The Competency Assessment tool addresses the four pillars of people, finance and growth, business processes, digital and automation. The competency report highlights the areas of most need, and this is used to match the business with a mentor who is best suited to helping to address them. Mentors are provided by specialist executive coaching firm The Discovery Partnership which has an extensive panel of mentors with expertise in various aspects of business.

During the course of the 12-week programme, business-owners avail of multiple 90 minute one to one mentoring sessions and enjoy unlimited access to peer-focused workshops and expert-led masterclasses.

They also get three licences to the Percipio online learning platform for SMEs. This offers self-paced learning to help improve productivity by upskilling. Participating businesses can choose to do any courses on the platform which address their particular needs.

“At the end of the 12 weeks, participants prepare a business improvement plan with the assistance of their mentor,” McFarlane says. “This covers the next six months for the business and focuses on those areas highlighted in the Competency Assessment as well as others which may have arisen during the mentoring sessions. We encourage business-owners to retake the Competency Assessment at the end of the six months to evaluate the improvement and identify any areas which might need further work.”

MentorsWork has been outstandingly successful so far with 98% of participants saying they were highly satisfied/satisfied. In addition, a report prepared by The Discovery Partnership reveals that 93% of participants have completed a business improvement plan; 79% report improved productivity; 71% have reduced costs and improved margins; 69% say they have made progress on digitalisation; and 54% have seen increased access to government supports.

“The programme really is covering all bases for business owners,” McFarlane points out. “But we won’t stop there, and it will continue to evolve as it has done since we launched it in April 2020. We are constantly receiving feedback from the mentors and the participants, and we will use that to continue to improve the programme over time. For example, the green economy is an increasing area of focus.”

Bowen urges business owners to take part: “Small business owners are pulled in all directions and will often manage day-to-day operations along with areas like sales and marketing to keep the business ticking over. Where MentorsWork helps is in directing attention to future business planning, such as what does expansion look like, how will it be funded, and where will it come from? Covid forced us to run the programme online and this has worked to our advantage as it suits time-poor business owners who may have difficulty attending mentoring sessions or workshops in person. MentorsWork is for businesses in every sector and of all sizes from just one or two employees right up to 250. Every business owner can benefit from it, and all we ask of participants is their time.”