Why Leaders Need Mentors

Comm update_1 OctoberExecutives 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.”

Wise counsel

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.




Landing the Next Big Role

When stepping up to role of CEO or taking on that first ever non-executive director position, it’s easy to make the mistake of trying to do too much too soon. The reality is that while you’ll have to make your presence felt, the smartest move in the early days is to take the time to get a real understanding of the business.

Bernard Cragg, Senior Non-executive Director for Mothercare and a Criticaleye Associate, says: “If you are lucky enough to have a board populated with serious business people, they will try and help you. But listen to what’s going on; find out what the issues are, how people operate and if there are catalysts or detractors… Experience tells you: don’t act too quickly.”

It’ll be a true test of intellect and character. Paul Brennan, Chairman of technology company OnApp, says: “Most people don’t know when they are ready – which is why they are scared to death [about stepping up] and that’s a good thing. You should be nervous, tense and excited.”

Mary Jo Jacobi, another Criticaleye Associate and Non-executive Director for commodities trading advisor Mulvaney Capital Management, says: “You don’t want to show weakness or fallibility. You have this feeling… that you’re supposed to know everything; that you must be able to answer every question. But if you’ve just made this big change you’ll have more questions than answers.”

In the path to landing a role as CEO or taking on a chairman’s role, it’s increasingly vital to have a variety of skills in your locker. Mark Powles, CEO of water supplier Business Stream, says: “You need to adjust your perspective. Every step up brings with it an element of fear… I’m a great believer in breadth as opposed to depth at a senior leadership level, because you want to bring experiences from as many different situations as you possibly can.

“In my experience, there has not been a problem presented to me that I haven’t faced from a different angle in a previous role, and [you just need] the ability to adapt those generic business principles to the challenge you’ve got in front of you.”

Chris Stooke, Non-executive Chairman at Miles Smith Insurance, comments: “As you become more experienced you can bring war stories and learning points from one type of organisation to another. An example I found recently has been negotiating banking terms… I had to do it quite a lot as an executive and that experience has been pretty helpful as a non-executive in two or three circumstances.”

It’s a point taken up by Bob Mann, Executive Chairman of cloud computing specialist Relayware: “I’ve been an interim CEO, I’ve been a chairman, I’ve mentored CEOs, I’ve fired CEOs, and I’ve stepped in as CEO. I can evaluate whatever the situation is and work out which of my personalities is supposed to turn up and which personality I have to transform into.”

In the public eye

Whether it’s a role in a private company or a public one, it’s important to research the business and the responsibilities that will come with the role. Paul comments that “assuming that your brief is 100 per cent accurate from day one is probably prone to disaster”.

Gerry Brown, Chairman of Novaquest Capital Management, an investor in the biopharmaceutical sector, says: “At the beginning it is extremely important that there is a proper induction programme and that the person joining is up to speed with the business, the management, and that they have the confidence to really contribute.”

According to Gerry, NED roles are becoming a lot harder: “In the past there were fewer demands from the public but now it doesn’t matter if you are a public company, private company or private equity-backed, you can easily end up being in the news….and people will immediately focus on how the business has been run. That, in terms of preparation, is something that most directors are not ready for – how to deal with the media and media issues.”

There will be shocks and surprises but, then again, if you’re serious about a top position in a business then handling the unknown and unexpected has to be part of the attraction.

For Bernard, the key is to plan in advance so as to ensure that you don’t appear out of your depth when an opportunity does arise: “You have to increase your exposure to the boardroom to understand how it operates and what goes on in there. It can be intimidating if you’ve got people around you who are very experienced.”

Mary says: “I’ve changed jobs and companies a lot and every company has its own culture, and every company, despite what they say, has its own politics, and it is helpful to have an understanding of that culture and those politics if you come from outside, even if you have been on the board as a non-exec.”

It comes back to the dangers of assuming too much or failing to appreciate that, despite your previous successes, there is still plenty to learn. Bob says: “Coming into a role as a chairman when your experience, as in my case, was highly operational… you had to be very careful. It was a case of putting your ego at the door, because it wasn’t all about you; it is really all about the CEO…  Then you had to [work out] how to implement programmes to make the CEO successful, while also thinking about how to remove that person if necessary.”

Of course, the qualities to succeed as CEO or NED are entirely different. Nevertheless, there is always a bedding-in period which you have to set aside for yourself as you come to terms with a new position. Bernard says: “Don’t try too hard to make an impression in the early days… there’s a tendency for people on their first non-executive directorships to think that you have to sit in the room and impress people. Well, you don’t.”

Please get in touch if you have any comments about the issues raised here.

I hope to see you soon.