Mentoring has proven invaluable to many executives and their businesses, but the relationship requires investment. Mentees must be clear about what they want to gain, welcoming of challenge and willing to reflect in order to move up to the next level.
Tom Beedham, Director of Board Mentors & NEDs at Criticaleye, comments: “Mentoring is about shifting your perspective in order to see outside of your bubble. It allows you to access real-life examples from someone who’s been there and seen it before.
“Our research confirms that business leaders get a huge amount of value from this external viewpoint, both in terms of their professional development and improved performance in their roles.”
Here, we speak to both mentors and mentees about how they best utilise this resource.
Broaden your network
Alastair Collier, Head of Strategy, Solutions and Sustainability, National Grid
Mentoring has helped me, in both a direct and indirect way, to expand my professional network. I remember in my first ever session, I reeled off a list of everything I was doing internally, and my mentor said: “that’s all great, but this is the easy part, and it’s about 25 percent of what you should be doing. Your focus should be more on what you do externally.”
My mentor explained how he had built his network and developed really meaningful and deep industry relationships, which is something I tried to enact in the role I was in at the time.
When I came into National Grid, I spent a lot of time getting to know the external community and building strong external relationships, such as with the supply chain, key advisors and, where I can, our customers.
Since then, I have built relationships more broadly in the industry, with a very diverse group of people – many of whom I have been introduced to through my mentor. This has become fundamental to how I operate.
Treat it as a safe space
Mui Hoon Poh, Board Member, Singapore Pools, and a Criticaleye Board Mentor
From my past executive roles, I know it can be difficult to find someone to have an open and honest conversation with. Mentoring can provide a safe space to speak with someone who has no conflicting agenda and has seen enough to provide a valued perspective, which can help you navigate through situations.
However, personality matters almost as much as the advice given, particularly when you are first building a relationship. For the relationship to work well, there needs to be good chemistry, trust and mutual respect.
Most leaders have very strong characters – that’s often how they became executives to begin with – but if this is paired with a closed mind then the chemistry will not work. I have seen things go wrong when the mentee is very defensive; they hear a perspective that they do not agree with and become guarded.
I have also seen mentors get judgemental or critical too fast, and this spoils the relationship as it puts the mentee in an uncomfortable position. They may not be as open and trusting. A mentor should demonstrate a positive attitude and be a role model to the mentee.
Be receptive to different experiences
Scot Gardner, Chief Executive, UK & Ireland, Cisco Systems
My mentor’s background is as an HRD and she has given me her personal insight into some of the thought processes around specific HR issues, which has allowed me to look at certain situations in a different light.
There are commonalities between us, but it is mostly the differences I value, in terms of the types of industries and roles she’s had. I am a long-term Cisco employee, and there is a risk of only having one set of perspectives. My mentor has helped me to feel that I shouldn’t worry too much about that, as she has shared examples of what she has done in similar situations in different sectors.
This has given me great confidence in some of the ways I look at the business and innovation around it. When you’re meeting with peers this is particularly important, because you think: Actually we do have a really good perspective here, and that’s been validated by the external position my mentor has provided. Then, if you’re confident you’re more relaxed, and if you’re more relaxed, you’re more comfortable taking on risk and new discussions.
Above all else, I want my mentor to be provocative in the way they think and to have a different opinion to me. Every executive should be open to fresh thinking and different views, and that is what I really value about the relationship.
Invest time in order to grow
Vanda Murray, Non-executive Chair, Marshalls, and a Criticaleye Board Mentor
You’ve got make time for the mentor-mentee relationship, because there is nothing worse than appointments being cancelled at short notice, and someone not putting enough effort into it. Both sides will get frustrated quite quickly.
It is crucial for the mentee to come into the relationship positively, having really thought about what they are trying to get out of it. Then you can tackle something different in every session, whether that is a current issue or about your future development, and your mentor will be armed with the most relevant examples.
In the best relationships I have had, it has been clear that the mentee has gone away and given what I have said some real thought, then come back prepared to move the conversation on to the next level.
It is also important for mentors to apply some time to their own development, for example by attending short courses and networking events. We should all be learning continuously so we keep up to date and do not lose our currency. Not only does this keep us fresh, but also interested and excited by the possibilities of what we can do.
Alice French, Editorial Assistant, Criticaleye
See this short Criticaleye film for more insight into the unique value provided by mentoring.