Colin Donald talks to Jeanette Forbes about her work for the Scottish Chambers Mentoring Programme.
The oil price slump is playing havoc with her main home market. She has to take calls from clients in all time zones at all hours of the night. She is fighting to build a sustainable business to hand on to the next generation. And still, Jeanette Forbes devotes hours of her time to mentor growing businesses.
You have to ask: Why?
Under the Scottish Chambers of Commerce Mentoring Programme, the multi award-winning chief executive of Aberdeen-based ICT services company PCL is currently acting as guide and confidante to no fewer than seven companies, from hair dressers to engineers to chiropractors and bar and restaurant owners.
But with working days that regularly start at 5am and find her still at her desk at 10pm at night, she isn’t exactly looking for ways to fill her time. Nor is she looking for boxes to tick to show good corporate citizenship. Far from it. Having made time for mentoring, she takes it extremely seriously. Meetings with her are “not just a chat over coffee” but rigorous two-hour sessions, in which “mentees” are expected to arrive fully prepared to make the most of the joint investment of time.
“I think early on in the engagement you have to be clear about structure. This is work. This not just a nice-to-have. It’s an important opportunity for businesses to offload some of the things that are going through their minds, and to get someone with a different perspective to offer advice.
“But they need to be focused. Time is money to me and they should be thinking the same way. If they aren’t, then they aren’t showing true business acumen.”
Self-confessedly “incredibly driven”, the story of Mrs Forbes’s rise from receptionist, secretary and working mum to globally-networked ICT entrepreneur and chief executive is one of Scotland’s most inspirational business stories. PCL now does business in 17 countries while she herself is the toast of the international motivational speaking circuit, particularly lauded for advancing the cause of women in the “man’s world” of ICT.
But it is because of, not despite, the success she has already achieved that she still cares about helping struggling young companies through their everyday problems, and still believes in sharing the benefit of her experience.
As Mrs Forbes describes it, mentoring young companies is part duty, part pleasure. She relishes her engagement with younger business people, who tend to be in their 30s and 40s. But like all good leaders, her brain is set to receive as well as to transmit.
“You will be surprised by how much I have learned , I have learned a lot form people coming to speak to me, and having similar experiences” she says.
But she also sees the investment of time as repaying a kind of debt of honour.
“I was asked if I would get involved in mentoring through SCC, someone in Aberdeen, to begin with. I thought, have I got the time, especially when you’re running your own business, and finding time to do everything you need to do within your own establishment.”
“But my view was that if there are young and up and coming budding entrepreneurs, sometimes you have to speak to other people. I myself had learned an awful lot from people who were already in business and I was able to speak to them about how they dealt with things, what was their approach? In fact, I became the networking queen of Aberdeen, because I spent an awful lot of time talking to people!”
“It sounds bizarre but you become like a sponge, you absorb all that information and store it and as time goes on you start to put it into practice in your own business. So when the mentoring thing came along I thought it was a great way to impart some of that knowledge and some of my own experience gathered over the years.”
How prescriptive is her advice?
“It’s not about telling people how to do it. All you can do is use your own experience as an example and say ‘I did this’. You can give them that knowledge and it’s their decision as to what they do with what you said. They can take it or leave it.”
“I think that’s very much the way you have to look at it, it’s from your own experience. Business is like drama and you have trod those boards yourself. You can impart that information.”
The most common problems people come to her with, she says, are “about staffing and money”,
“These are the two main things you are going to have issues with as far as I’m concerned in any business.”
Her own experience has given her an instinctive feel for the all-important human software, and striking the right kind of balance of personalities that a business needs between “givers” and “takers”. She can now intuitively spot those who you can and can’t rely on. So does she ever feel tempted to, be prescriptive if the personnel chemistry is clearly causing problems?
“I’d never actually recommend that anyone get rid of anyone. It would be wrong to do this on hearsay as there are always two sides to every story. I might look for an alternative and that eases them into thinking they might need to do something.”
The school of hard knocks has also qualified her to give life-saving tips about how to conduct yourself when a VAT bill hits you when cash is critical and HMRC comes.
“I tell them the first thing you need to do is not bury your head in the sand, you need to speak to HMRC, and come up with a payment plan, something is better than nothing.”
One last piece of advice, directed at would-be mentors:
“If you think you are going to get new clients out of it, forget it. It’s not going to happen. Out of all the people I’ve mentored over the years I’ve only got one client and that was because they happened to be looking to improve their technology and they wanted someone they could trust.”
In other words, if you don’t see business mentoring as a labour of love, then it’s probably not for you. If however you care about the success of Scottish business and the economy, and want to expand your horizons while helping others, Jeanette Forbes’s path is one to follow.
A Yorkshirewoman and adopted Aberdonian, Jeanette Forbes founded PCL after being made redundant from her job as IT Systems Manager for ESL Group. She started the company from her dining room table in 2000, with her only access to the internet being the metred computer in the local library. She is now working on an exit strategy and succession plan in which the future CEO’s of PCL Group will be her son and daughter.