Executives in high-octane roles can easily suffer from tunnel vision. That’s why good mentors can be priceless, as they can draw on years of experience in business to make suggestions and impart pieces of advice which are untarnished by hidden bias or personal agendas. Indeed, those executives that use a mentor to free up their thinking rarely regret doing so.
“It’s not about passing judgement or even giving directives, it’s more about being a sounding board in an open and trusted manner, so that the mentee feels completely comfortable in discussing any of the challenges he or she may be facing,” says Stephen Chu, Philanthropist and former CEO of the Hong-Kong based Hui Xian Real Estate Investment Trust. “I find it very useful when a mentor gives me feedback with a number of options, not just a: ‘Do this or do that.’ Rather, it’s more about asking: ‘Have you considered this or have you tried thinking about it from another perspective?’
“Nobody knows a particular challenge or situation better than the mentee, so it’s ultimately up to oneself to make the final decision... [but] simply having a chance to look at things from different angles is what I’ve always found very useful and enlightening from a mentor, and very helpful in making a decision.”
Vanda Murray, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Senior Independent Director at engineering company Fenner, comments: “Most people will need different mentors at different stages in their career. At a senior level, it’s more likely to be a conversation to talk through key issues and get advice from those who have been through similar circumstances.”
It’s that broader perspective which is invaluable. Herminia Ibarra, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, says: “[One trait of mentors] that nobody talks about is the ability to articulate a point of view – what’s important in leadership and why. This helps the mentee not just emulate the behaviour of the mentor but instead work to assimilate the thinking behind it.”
For Neil Stephens, Managing Director for the UK and Ireland at food company Nestlé Professional, being assigned a mentor was pivotal in his transition to becoming an MD: “[My mentor] focused on leadership qualities, how to manage in a matrix organisation, and what skills and competencies are required to go from functional leadership to general management leadership.
“It was brilliant for me, because I was able to have that conversation in a confidential way, communicate hopes and fears, and he was able to either confirm them or, more importantly, give tips and techniques to actually manage that change, and what to do beyond the job to help me get there.”
A similar point is made by Tim Kiy, MD of Operations for Marketing, Communications, Citizenship and Public Affairs at Barclays Africa Group: “About five years ago, I had an opportunity to work with a mentor who helped me tremendously in terms of career management...
“[He] was able to bring objectivity... [and] had enjoyed a long, successful career. That was incredibly helpful because all too often you get lost in your own thoughts, so it’s important to get perspectives from other people.”
Rebecca Lythe, Chief Compliance Officer at retailer Asda, comments: “When I moved into my current role it was a big change and required an adjustment in terms of my style... I could have spoken to somebody else on the team, but it wasn't the same as asking somebody independent. I needed someone objective, who didn't know any of the other characters to bounce my questions off: ‘What is it like being a junior member around the board table? How do I tackle certain things? How do I react to certain things? How can I do things differently?’ It has really helped to stretch me and has given me greater confidence.”
Trust plays a big part in the relationship between mentor and mentee. Jane Furniss, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Deputy Chair of homeless charity Crisis, says: “When I was CEO of the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission], I remember telling my mentor about things that were happening that I would not have told anyone... I knew that I had to be able to tell her things that, if repeated, even to another trustworthy person, would have been extremely damaging to me personally.
“That’s why I always remind my mentees of the trustworthy nature of our relationship when we are talking about sensitive issues, so that they feel confident in talking to me... You have to establish it and re-establish it on a number of occasions.”
Sense of purpose
The structure of meetings and frequency will vary, but the rule of thumb is to have an agenda of sorts to frame those two-way exchanges. Tim comments: “The important thing when working with a mentor is, right at the outset, to understand what the relationship is there to do.
“As you would do with any other activity, set goals for that and understand whether that is a six-month horizon or a lifetime co-relationship. The point is, what are you trying to achieve and over what period? You can all too quickly fall into: ‘Well, let’s get together once a month and just chew the cud.’”
Jane says: “It helps if someone comes along and says; ‘I’ve got a problem that I really want to work through with you and here’s the definition of the problem’, because that can make for a very active session which is useful for the mentee.
“But quite often, and I know I was the same, you don’t actually think about the mentoring session until two minutes before the person arrives because you’re just too busy. In those circumstances, what I find is that getting someone to talk about what’s front of mind actually gets to the problem anyway.”
As for mentors, if the relationship is to work they need to enjoy getting to the bottom of what their mentees need. Herminia notes there has to be the ability to empathise and connect with people who are different, whereby mentors can demonstrate they are able “to remember what it was like when one was younger, less successful and less clear about one’s leadership, so they can identify with the person going through all the challenges of transitioning from a much more clear-cut technical or functional role to leading”.
Angus Fraser, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of The Caldecott Foundation, a charity set-up to help vulnerable children, says: “I’ve never had a problem being enthused about other people’s challenges and I get a big kick out of actually getting under the skin of things and relating them to my own experiences.”
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring and it’s easy to overcomplicate it. But, increasingly, executives are realising that having a mentor is a vital part of their toolkit for leadership development.
I hope to see you soon.