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Mentoring At The Silver Academy

In our book, FINDING WORK AFTER 40, Liam and I describe an ‘older worker’ as someone over 40 – not an advanced age if you happen to be 55 or 62. In fact, it seems positively youthful to those of us who have crossed over the half-century line. Ours was an arbitrary choice, based on the youngest age that someone might be considered ‘older’ in today’s workforce. Those who are in the IT sector or in marketing will likely agree that 40 is a difficult age. Over 45 and certainly over 50 (for every sector) is what we really mean by ‘older’.

The age of 50 is a demarcation for The Silver Academy. The project is a partnership between South East Chambers of Commerce and the University of Surrey, with funding provided by the EU Interregional Cooperation programme INTERREG IVC. The objective is simple: to help unemployed older people start their own businesses. Over six months, a series of seven one-day workshops guides participants, some 100 in total, towards a decision and an action plan for self-employment. Leadership is provided by Len Goss, an experienced business coach, with support from Ross McNally of South East Chambers.

I discovered The Silver Academy when I was doing research for the book. I was impressed by the concept and offered my time as a volunteer mentor, a service the Academy provides to participants on request. Since February, I’ve been mentoring two people from the Academy, and the experience has been very rewarding. Phil and Jane are both designers – one does offices, the other home interiors. We meet regularly and discuss problems and issues, with weekly assignments (I call it ‘homework’), all the while moving towards an agreed goal. I encourage Phil and Jane to examine their strengths and weaknesses, assess what they need, and develop an action plan. Then I help them stay on track. There is a ‘how to’ element in mentoring, which is what differentiates it from coaching, and so I do present recommendations based on my own business experience. Phil and Jane are starting their first businesses, while I have had several start-ups, and I’ve worked for new companies as an interim manager and a consultant.

Ross invited me to a special mentoring day, held last week (March 14th) in Guildford, where Len took Silver Academy participants through a fast-paced workshop in personal coaching, one of his areas of expertise. He’s an enthusiastic and talented man; he got everyone involved, including me. It was hugely useful and often entertaining. I learned more about the close relationship between mentoring and coaching and, thankfully, my mentoring concepts and methods were confirmed. We were instructed to never say, ‘Yes, but…’ in any session. It’s an ego comment coming from the coach/mentor, one that denies a person’s abilities. I was pleased to realise I have never said it to Phil and Jane.

Len asked me to tell the group what benefit I receive from mentoring. What does the mentor get out of it? Here are the bullet points I presented.

  • Confirmation that my advice is appropriate and my skills are effective. My knowledge has value.
  • Information when the mentee tells me something I didn’t know about their sector, their ‘world’. I’m enriched by  their knowledge.
  • Network enhancement. The mentee is in my network, and I’m in theirs. We all need to constantly upgrade our network.

So what’s different about mentoring older workers? It’s pleasant to work with people who have years of employment experience behind them — they know their capabilities. Phil and Jane are moving towards a personal definition of success; they each have clearly-defined goals. Communication is fluent because we share common ground: we’re from the same generation. Talking down is inappropriate and embarrassing for both parties in any mentoring situation, but I have found that ‘Yes, but’ is closer to the surface when I’ve mentored younger people.

If you are considering a move into self-employment and starting your own business, try to find a mentor, someone with experience who can encourage you and guide you away from pitfalls and towards success. Where are they found? A government initiative commences this summer, one that will replace Business Link advisors with volunteer mentors, some 40,000 in all. Visit the Business Link website for information and updates (at the time of writing I was unable to find a web address for this service). If your need is more urgent, Horsesmouth allows you to register a request for a mentor (www.horsesmouth.co.uk). PRIME, http://www.primeinitiative.co.uk and the sister site http://www.primebusinessclub.com provide information for over-50s starting a business. You won’t find a list of mentors there, but you can receive free business advice from a number of local sources listed in the Prime Business Club directory. Once you get started, you may be led towards an appropriate mentor by helpful guides you meet along the way.

Remember that a mentor should be positive and supportive. If you leave a session feeling downhearted, having heard ‘Yes, but’ a few too many times, you’re with the wrong person. Knowledge and encouragement are what you need to help you get back to work.

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The Bias Against Public Sector Workers

Another employment prejudice has been exposed: a recent study conducted by the Financial Times and Barclays Corporate has determined that, out of 500 private sector companies, 57% of those surveyed were not interested in hiring from the public sector, with 52% stating they believed those workers ‘were not equipped’ to take a job in their company. This does not bode well for NHS employees, those working for councils, and thousands of other public sector workers who are soon to be made redundant. The study reveals a long-standing bias that exists in our working culture: public sector workers aren’t as competent as those in the private sector. When combined with age discrimination – another prejudice – it means that over-45s from the public sector will have the most difficult time finding employment.

Given that 65% of new jobs are created by SMEs (companies employing 250 people or less) in an average year, the expectation seems to be that, as if by magic, those companies will create jobs to soak up the newly-unemployed public sector workers. And yet the government is doing little to help small enterprises (in fact, many of them depend on public-sector contracts that are being cut) and the banks are hindering their expansion by making credit and loan conditions onerous and unfeasible.

So what’s a poor, soon to be out-of-work middle (or senior) public sector manager to do in these conditions? Act now, and act fast. Before you’re made redundant examine the changing landscape and see which private sector companies are getting government contracts. Many of them are large employers, and some of them may be hiring soon. As an example, the new version of the Work Programme will see companies such as Serco, G4S and PWC acting as prime providers, with delivery starting 1 July, 2011. They’ll be sub-contracting, and you’ll have credibility because you understand your sector, and you know how to manage teams that deliver a public service. Convince them that you can make savings efficiencies and you might secure your next role.

The purpose of this blog is to give light and hope to older workers in the form of practical information and suggestions. And yes, I have a book to sell. FINDING WORK AFTER 40: Proven Strategies for Managers and Professionals is published by A&C Black (Bloomsbury) and will be available April 29, 2011. In the meantime, I’ll be blogging frequently on the topic of re-employment and self-employment for older workers. It’s my mission to help others get back to work. I’m Robin McKay Bell. www.robinmckaybell.com