SMEs (businesses with fewer than 250 employees) account for three-fifths of employment and around half the turnover of private-sector companies in the UK. The 2015 report, How Good Is Your Business Really estimated that improving the ‘long tail’ of less productive businesses could create over £130 billion in economic value every year, and called for a business-led response.
To this end, Be the Business was launched in 2017 with funding and support from the UK government and some of Britain’s leading companies, including BAE Systems, GSK, Siemens, Amazon, McKinsey & Co and Accenture. Its aim was to boost the productivity of the UK’s SMEs through a series of programmes and activities - including Mentoring for Growth,which connects owners and key decision makers in SMEs with business leaders from top-tier companies whose experience best matches the SMEs’ particular needs.
BAE Systems leaders began volunteering their time as mentors and following a call at the start of the pandemic for ‘Rapid Response Mentoring’ dozens more employees are now mentoring SMEs in need.
Sitting in the heart of communities, small businesses are vital to the UK’s economy and society. In this pandemic, I believe big businesses have a crucially important role to play in helping SMES navigate through the crisis and into the future. BAE Systems’ employees didn’t hesitate to volunteer their skills and expertise and we have over 100 leaders currently mentoring small business owners from a wide range of sectors across the UK.
Nigel Whitehead, BAE Systems Director of External Affairs
Rapid response mentor
Sarah-Jane PenmanBusiness Improvement ManagerBAE Systems Maritime
Sarah-Jane Penman is a business improvement manager at BAE Systems’ maritime business in Edinburgh. She says: “I was naturally drawn to mentoring because of my interests in people and shaping best practice - things that are part of my job,” she explains. “I thought this would be a great way of discussing problems with different businesses, of different sizes, in different sectors, and to learn about the nuances.”She has been mentoring CGA Strategy, a data, research and insight consultancy, which, before Covid, had grown to around 150 people since it was founded in 1992. CGA works across the globe from its headquarters in Manchester and offices in the US. The pandemic meant it had to furlough some employees, and work out how to facilitate remote working during lockdown. But keen not to put the brakes on its plans, it also wanted to find ways of translating some programmes it was already working on - including workforce development and retention, and cross-departmental communication – into a remote context.Fiona Speakman, client director at CGA was looking for personal development as well as organisational support, and Sarah helped on both counts. “Sarah recommended books to read, or formats for documents, as well as process frameworks she has adopted and adapted in her own business that we could use here,” she explains. “For example, BAE Systems has a staff consultative committee to facilitate cross-departmental communications, with members elected from every part of the business."Sarah-Jane has found the process cathartic: “To an extent I do impart knowledge, but we also share experiences,” she says. What’s more, though she had had coaching training, and has mentored apprentices within her part of BAE Systems, the Mentoring for Growth role has allowed her to hone her mentoring skills. “In the early stages I know I talked too much,” she admits. “I err on the side of positivity, and believe that nearly everything, to a greater or lesser extent, is fixable. But I can be overenthusiastic in sharing the benefit of my experience, and I quickly realised that I needed to give Fiona time to reflect, and talk about her own experiences.Fiona agrees: “I’ve found the sessions increasingly enjoyable, and it began to feel like a more mutual process. I was surprised that Sarah seemed to be learning as well as me.” As the relationship evolved “we realised we had opportunities to explore each other’s experiences in different fields,” says Penman.
Rapid response mentor
Pete BoddyCentral EngineeringBAE Systems Air
Pete Boddy began his career with BAE Systems in 1996 and now focuses on evolving and developing engineering processes and techniques throughout BAE Systems’ military aircraft business. He has supported Be the Business for 15 months and mentored three different medium-sized businesses in the North-West. Pete has found the mentoring experience to be incredibly rewarding on both a professional and personal level and has been impressed at the entrepreneurial spirit and ability to move quickly within small businesses.Pete’s approach to mentoring is to develop the most open and honest relationship possible with each of his mentees. By doing this he has been able to help each business apply a strategic approach to goals and to utilise business planning tools; practices which are commonplace throughout BAE Systems. These techniques have proven to be a real breakthrough for each firm. Providing a focus on strategy and the means to deliver objectives has brought swift and hugely beneficial results.The first organisation Pete mentored was an oil and gas maintenance firm based in Manchester who wanted advice on structuring objectives and engaging employees in the company and deliver a better end product for customers. Pete’s mentored the Production Director who spent much of his time fire-fighting business issues. For Pete, developing an honest relationship with the firm’s Production Director was absolutely key in being able to deliver positive criticism and challenges and enabled them to identify their strategic approach and business objectives. He says: “As a mentor you might be the first person who has ever challenged embedded thinking and suggested different ways of doing things. You have to have the relationships in place for your challenges to be well received.”Pete also mentored an IT and software company who wanted to expand their business. Again using strategic planning tools, he was able to provide guidance around streamlining their offering online, resulting in a significant increase in sales. Significantly he also helped the firm identify ‘technology champions’ who were then empowered to help transform the business’s website and improve the customer experience. In working with the IT company, Pete says: “Here I was able to bring the concept of the ‘incomplete leader’ to the business. In BAE Systems we talk about the strength of leaders who can admit they don’t know everything or have all the answers. We find this environment enables expert employees to feel confident in coming forward with innovations.”Currently Pete is supporting an air conditioning units firm who are keen to identify new revenue streams – this requirement has become even more critical in the pandemic environment. In the last few weeks Pete has been providing rapid response mentoring on a virtual basis.Pete stresses the need to be humble in the mentoring process. He says: “These business have asked for help and want support to be better. It’s not easy having someone scrutinise and really challenge prior assumptions and long embedded processes. As a mentor it’s important to remember this. Equally, I have learnt so much from the businesses I’ve worked with so far. Each firm has displayed a real hunger to learn and improve and achieved really impressive results very quickly. Being a mentor has helped me keep my ideas fresh and this makes me a better at what I’m doing in BAE Systems too.”