Keith and Sue Mentoring
From running 1980s record labels to events for business start-ups and SMEs, Keith Willett has a wealth of knowledge and experience behind him that makes him an exceptional mentor to those taking the plunge with a new business venture. In 2017 Keith began mentoring Sue Poole, who spotted a gap in the market for a ‘Virtual PA’ and set up Sphere Admin Solutions. This month we chatted to Keith and Sue about how mentoring inspires you to look at work with a fresh perspective.
Keith worked for Lloyds Banking Group for 42 years, predominantly as a Relationship Director in Manufacturing. In this commercial and corporate banking role, Keith helped start-ups and SMEs through running inspiring events and hosting thought-leading content from world-class speakers. However, Keith first cut his business teeth in a much less conventional career.
Keith says: “In the early 1980s I was a musician in a band that released records through its own – let’s say ‘truly independent’! – record label, and we were played by the likes of Radio1 and John Peel. We funded the label through gigs and record sales, and handling this as well as marketing actually gave me a great grounding in what it takes to set up and run a small business, even if it’s been a very different career path since then!”
After years of working in a large organisation, Keith felt both inspired to ‘give something back’ and to look at business from a different perspective. Last year he was introduced to Sue Poole, who was in the early stages of running her self-started business, and Keith and Sue are fast approaching their tenth mentoring session.
Keith says: “My day job is all about providing solutions, so I thought it would be very interesting to put this default work mode aside and support and encourage mentees to find solutions for themselves. The first time they make decisions they can find it challenging, but you see their confidence grow and, as a result, their business grows too, and seeing this process is very rewarding.”
Keith and Sue’s mentoring took the shape of monthly phone calls or informal meetings over a coffee, which would act as way of benchmarking how far Sue had progressed with her plans and their agreed agendas.
Keith says: “We’d speak on the phone or head to a coffee shop somewhere, as this is a good neutral ground where relaxed and productive discussions flow. It’s been my role to be a sounding board and give an independent viewpoint. Sue mentioned that she liked the way I agreed agendas to make the best use of the time, and we’ve explored several new packages that she’s offered to businesses to help them make their working lives easier.
“Sue offers a time-saver to support people and enable them to be free to do what they do best – she’s a real force for good in her business community. I’ve seen Sue take some setbacks and knocks from third parties along the way, but she’s come back stronger as a result. She’s a lovely, warm person to talk to, and she’s demonstrated that she’s an excellent person to do business with. She is quick to build trust and she offers a great service that’s now been so useful to several grateful businesses.”
Whilst taking on a mentoring role could be considered an additional job in an already busy working life, Keith explains that he has found it to be quite the opposite.
Keith says: “If anything, spending a couple of hours a month on preparation and a call for a mentee actually enhances the work-life balance. It’s so interesting learning what their business plans are, and their ideas are inspirational.
“Learning to hold back from just giving out the answers to problems can be challenging, but it’s so much more powerful when the mentee comes up with the ideas themselves. You’re unlocking that potential and seeing people and their businesses grow. For any aspiring mentors out there, I’d advise them to find the time to sign up to the training course. It’s straightforward and it’s accessible, and it’s all that stands between now and a very rewarding and interesting part of your working life.”
Sphere Admin Solutions may be in its early stages, but Sue says this new business venture actually brings her right back to her roots. Two years ago Sue left a job that she loved, but felt no longer worked for her life, and so she decided to combine her skills and passion with an acutely spotted gap in the market, and Sphere Admin Solutions was born.
Sue says: “It’s mainly what I’d done all my life, lots of PA and admin roles at a very senior level. I basically decided to go back to my roots, to what I really enjoyed – which is organising people’s lives! I’m an exceptionally organised person in every area of my life – my ideal sideline would be organising people’s wardrobes, as I would absolutely love it, but I’m not sure that’s a viable option!
“My inspiration for SAS actually came from doing some personal property renovations. The contractors are prepared to work every hour you’re paying them to work, and I started to think – when are you doing your paperwork? They were obviously buying stuff for this job, never mind the other jobs they were doing, and it got me thinking – as a small business you have to take the work that pays and it’s hard to do these administrative jobs, because you simply can’t do everything. I thought there was a gap in the market to take on these elements of a business, allowing the client to concentrate on the bits they do best.”
Sphere Admin Solutions covers everything from putting together invoices, credit control, managing diaries, making and receiving important calls and writing up business plans, to conducting research for a project or a book – and even running that project or writing that book.
Sue’s mantra is ‘organising your world to save you time’, and she has the energy, passion and belief to make waves in the business world. However, Sue says that much of her business confidence is new-found, and cites the support of her mentor, Keith, as being one of the reasons she has developed her confidence over the last 18 months.
Sue says: “It can be a very lonely world, starting up a businesses. You’re working on your own, and family and friends are too close – and too polite! – to be able to give
you objective advice. That’s what has been invaluable about having a mentor. Keith not only has masses of knowledge and experience, but he’s someone who I can bounce ideas off, who can help me to take that idea and properly put it into focus.
“In one of our recent meetings Keith commented on how much I’d grown in confidence over the last year, and I realised that I have. I’m a control freak who wants everything yesterday, and Keith has kept me grounded and focused on taking one idea at a time, setting out that idea to work on for our next meeting. Taking those measured steps makes you look at your business from the outside and see how much it’s evolving, and that’s a fantastic feeling.
“What’s particularly exciting is that what I’ve learnt from Keith has not only underpinned my business plans, but that I can then pass that on and apply it to my clients’ business plans too. So what I’ve learnt from Keith I’m able to pass on even further, meaning his mentoring has a much wider reach than just me and Sphere Admin Solutions. I can’t thank Keith enough for his support so far, and this mentoring programme is worth much more to me than words can say. I’m only a year and a half in and I already feel like I’m moving mountains – who knows where I’ll be in another year’s time!”