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Annalee Sawiak on the value of mentorship

Image of small business mentor Annalee Sawiak

With more than forty years in finance, consulting and tech, Annalee Sawiak has a wealth of insight and experience to share. She is a valued advisory board member of Red Dot Digital Inc., B2BeeMatch's parent company, and we caught up with her via email to chat about her perspective on mentorship. She shared why she became a mentor, the difference between how men and women mentees view her mentorship, why having a mentor is especially valuable for small business owners, and much more. We hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as we enjoyed putting it together for you!

Can you tell us a little bit about mentorship in general?

Mentorship, for me, is an intimate personal relationship which gives me the opportunity to learn about another person and relay the skills, knowledge and experience that I have (and that I believe can help give clarity to their situation). In its simplest form, it is a knowledge transfer.

What kind of mentorship do you do?

I am involved in two types of mentorship: retained and informal.

The informal mentorship is focused on supporting women I meet and am connected with by giving them a safe place to pose questions, express doubts and share strategies. This mentorship generally starts with a personal connection—my personality has to click with the other person. Once the connection is there, I let them know they can reach out as needed.

The formal or retained mentorship is generally made at the corporate level to help the organization deal with a particular issue or to assist specific employees to elevate their skills. This is a paid mentorship.

How did you become a mentor and why do you continue with it?

I am the eldest of five children, and I’m between five and 11 years older than my siblings. My brothers tease that I spent their childhood practicing my “trust me, I know what I am doing” tone of voice.

For me, mentorship started with helping my siblings with schoolwork. The religious school I attended valued helping other students and encouraging their learning, so it became comfortable for me to stop and teach.

In university I was a tutor, and later, when I graduated, a part-time instructor. The process of teaching included mentorship to encourage confidence in tackling complex problems.

What are the opportunities and challenges of being a woman mentor or a woman mentee?

Recently, at lunch with three women who are champions of women’s mentorship, I was asked a similar question. My response was that I mentor a number of men in organizations that pay me to give that support and feedback. I have never mentored a woman executive who felt that I should be paid. None of the women at lunch could recall a single case of paid mentorship either.

Women seem to confuse professional mentorship with friendship and see it as a gift of that relationship. While that is partly true, it also limits the capacity for a mentor to provide regular mentorship and for them to receive it.

In addition, while men seem to see mentorship as a natural part of skills development, women seem more inclined to see it as criticism. I still reserve a good deal of time for mentoring women, but I find I often need to devote time just to winning them over before they can trust the relationship and see it as a safe place to evolve.

Women in business often face systemic barriers to success. Can having a mentor help women better approach and navigate those barriers?

Absolutely it can. Women mentors can help businesswomen identify and understand the barriers to success. There is an advantage to the “been there, done that” conversation, to examining strategies to surmount barriers or ways to avoid them. Mentorship can provide connections and introductions that are so valuable in the business world—it’s a way of circumventing the club-like opacity of business.

Small businesses often operate on small budgets. Why is having a mentor worth the expense for a small business owner? Why is mentorship valuable?

I find that good mentorship can be a very cost-effective proposition that helps prevent costly and sometimes fatal errors.

Small business owners often need the savvy of a good mentor to steer them through unfamiliar waters such as contract negotiations, performance evaluation, communication, comparison of strategic alternatives and even how to communicate with external professionals. Much of my mentorship revolves around helping entrepreneurs build strategies to tackle these issues and at the same time make them more confident in tackling things on their own.

For instance, I recently was retained to help an executive tackle an acquisition that was imposing many challenges. By working with their team, I was able to help them see where the friction points were. It saved a great deal of professional fees and accelerated the identification of alternatives.

Where can a small business owner find a mentor? And what should they look for in a mentor?

This is a tough one. I know many retired lawyers, accountants and marketing executives who rebrand as mentors. In my opinion, subject knowledge is a very different skill from helping people evolve into a better, more confident version of their business self. There is also the problem that experience as an outside advisor is very different from living in the trenches of a small business.

My advice would be to consider retired executives from similar industries.

I have worked with a few different professional mentorship groups. Most of the mentors in these groups evolve from a human resources background, and they seem to be a good starting point for junior to mid-level staff. More junior people can benefit from these general environments, but once you move up the ladder, these mentors and groups are too generic. People at the CEO, CFO and founder level gain more from being mentored by senior executives.

Where to find them? Personal networks, business associations and small business accelerators are all good sources.

What can a small business owner do to be a good mentee? What's the etiquette?

  1. There needs to be a genuine personal chemistry between the mentee and mentor. Without that, friction is very likely going to interfere with the process.

  2. The mentee needs to be respectful of the mentor’s time and understand its value.

  3. Mentees need to be teachable and open to change.

  4. Mentees should be able to trust that their mentor is coming from a nurturing place and not trying to impose a replica of their approach.

Looking forward, why might 2022 be a particularly appropriate year to consider hiring a mentor?

We are all living in a time of incredible change and stress. All of us need to be adaptable and agile in evaluating, implementing and sometimes abandoning strategies. Mentorship helps shorten and sharpen that process. And, in my experience, most small business owners have a shortage of people to whom they can openly express their concerns and from whom they can seek guidance.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mentorship has to come from an inner passion to watch others grow, often beyond our own achievements. There cannot be any element of competition.

We hope you enjoyed reading this interview with small business mentor Annalee Sawiak. If you own or operate a small or medium business and you’re looking to meet a mentor or find other professional service providers, simply register your company with B2BeeMatch to connect with the services you need to succeed.

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