Can a Chairman Mentor the CEO?

A chairman should be able to provide support and guidance to a CEO when necessary. That said, a big question mark hangs over how open the two can be about business challenges given that the chairman’s ultimate responsibility lies with shareholders.

It’s a notoriously complex relationship, so Criticaleye spoke to a range of executive and non-executive directors about the ability of a chairman to mentor a CEO. They came up with four key points to bear in mind:

1) CEOs Don’t Do Vulnerable 

Understandably, a CEO may think twice before admitting to a chairman they’re struggling to resolve an issue in the business and need help.

Sir Ian Gibson, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of Norbrook, a global provider of veterinary pharmaceuticals, explains: “Often, people don’t want to show weakness to those they work with and therefore it’s the natural reaction of the CEO to question what signals they would send by raising a certain point.”

For mentoring in its truest sense to be effective, there has to be openness. While that’s not impossible between a CEO and chairman, it will take time to establish the necessary level of trust.

2) The Chairman Does the Hiring and Firing 

The chairman is expected to find a new leader if company performance levels are below par. Naturally, the CEO knows this and it’s a defining element of their relationship.

Tom Beedham, Director of Programme Management at Criticaleye, says: “True and effective mentoring can only be delivered by someone who has been at the coalface of leadership and understands the real life, day-to-day challenges faced by executives.

“A chairman may have this experience but they cannot truly be an independent mentor to the CEO as their ultimate role is to hire and fire them; their primary responsibility is to ensure the obligations to investors and stakeholders are both understood and met.”

Ian Harley, Board Mentor at Criticaleye and former Deputy Chairman and Senior Independent Director at British Energy, comments: “By and large the chair can’t be the CEO’s mentor – especially if they selected the CEO.

“It’s tricky to be seen coaching and helping someone you have picked because you believe they have what is required for the job.”

Cheryl Black, Non-executive Director at insurance agency Unum, notes: “The chairman has a role to help the chief executive succeed but they are not a sponsor. It’s very clear that the chairman is there to help the business succeed first.”

3) A Powerful Combination 

Of course, as trust builds between both parties, it should encourage greater openness. Anthony Fletcher, CEO of snack company Graze, says: “To not have the chair mentor or coach the CEO in some way would seem like you’re missing a trick to me,” he says.

“They understand the perspective of everyone around the board table; some of those perspectives may have been given in private – they don’t have to be betrayed – but that information will help [the CEO] do their job well.”

A similar point is made by Richard Laing, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of 3i Infrastructure:  “The chair can help the CEO deal with the many complex issues he or she will face, especially around the human aspects, such as the CEO’s colleagues, career progression, the way they are handling the job and so on.”

As Sir Ian puts it, “it’s about relationships”. He explains: “Process tracks what is happening, whereas relationships define whether it happens easily, seamlessly, or if there is a standoff. If it becomes fraught it will take longer to execute the strategy and that just isn’t helpful.”

4) An Independent View

It is all too easy for a CEO to find themselves isolated, especially if they are in the role for the first time. “Being a CEO is an extremely lonely life, you’re always having to keep things to yourself, you’re always guarding your views; whether you like it or not, you need to continually evaluate your people and whether they are working as a team,” Sir Ian comments.

“Eighty per cent of that you can and should share with your chairman, but there will be things that mean you’ll want to talk in a way that you can’t do with somebody in the business. If the conversation involves you questioning your own judgement as a CEO, you don’t want to share that with your chairman.”

That’s when speaking with someone who is genuinely objective and independent can be invaluable. “Early on in my career, when I stopped being a CEO and became a NED and chairman, I was relatively unimpressed by the idea of CEOs needing external mentorship,” recalls Sir Ian. “That’s touching 20 years for me now, and over that time I’ve become more convinced that it is of benefit.”

Do you think the chairman can mentor the CEO? Please do send your thoughts to:  

Don’t miss next week’s Community Update in which business leaders will discuss the role of the CFO. 


Where do CEOs Turn for Help?

Fractious board dynamics, disgruntled shareholders and poor performance will put enormous pressure on a CEO, especially if they’re new to the role. While solutions may not be easy to come by, it can be difficult for a leader to openly admit they don’t have the answers. That’s where a mentor can make a big difference.

A mentor can be particularly useful when starting a new role, says Matthew Wright, CEO of utility company Southern Water: “The value of a mentor is that you can draw on their experience in times of change. You might be entering a dysfunctional team, or the board might not be as supportive as you thought it would be.

“There are myriad issues that you can’t anticipate until you’re in the role. By speaking to someone who has been there, you can prepare yourself for what’s to come.”

Tom Taylor, and former Chief Executive of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, says: “My mentor got me to realise that as a new CEO, it was not my job to solve every problem as I had first thought.

“She got me to understand there’s a huge difference between leadership and management, which I think is one of the most common issues facing a first-time CEO. You can manage a team but you need to lead an organisation.”

Lonely at the top

Tony Cowling, Criticaleye Board Mentor and former CEO and Chairman of market research company TNS, agrees that mentoring helps new CEOs develop essential skills for the role. “Chief executives are often anxious when they’re new because there’s nearly always a part of the business they know little, or less, about,” he says.

He explains that one of his mentees soon realised they required a wider skillset for the role: “They’d come up through finance… suddenly they were CEO and had responsibility for the company’s marketing, sales and online presence. They thought: ‘The company needs to change in these areas, so I need someone with experience that’s different to mine.’”

While some mentees have come to Tony for his specific expertise, which in his case includes marketing and international expansion, he says much of it is about having the freedom to speak openly to someone, which often you can’t do within the company.

Agreeing with this sentiment, Julia Robertson, Group CEO of outsourced HR services provider Impellam, explains: “I worked with a mentor when I was first promoted from Divisional to Group CEO. The job is lonely. You’re unsure of what you don’t know until you’re there, and sometimes you won’t want to explore that with your chairman.”

It’s for similar reasons that Tom’s chairman recommended he took a mentor: “She realised there was benefit in the independence of a mentor, recognising there is always a line management relationship between a CEO and chair.”

Tony illustrates the issue of relying solely on boardroom support when he describes helping two CEO mentees through difficult relationships with their chairmen. One, who was a first-time CEO, had to manage the chairman off the team. “We discussed it in his very first meeting and he came to the conclusion that he had to do something. He feels much more confident having resolved the issue.”

It’s something that cuts both ways. Sir Michael Lyons, Criticaleye Board Mentor and Chairman of the English Cities Fund and former Chairman of the BBC Trust, who has acted as a mentor both formally and in his role chairing a company, says: “It’s quite possible for a good chairman to provide challenging support to their CEO, but there are inevitably performance judgements to make and it’s critical that the chairman does not get so close to the CEO that they’re unable to identify a failure or act upon it.

“The mentoring role is quite separate. It gives the mentee a chance to explore things that could be difficult to discuss with immediate colleagues, or board members.”

Mentoring in action  

While mentoring can provide considerable support in managing these relationships, its benefits extend beyond the boardroom to cover other issues including shareholder expectations, performance, remuneration or change management.

Penny Hamer, Criticaleye Board Mentor and former Group Human Resources Director of telecommunications company Energis, explains how she has provided mentoring through the restructure of an executive team and encouraged a female MD to put herself forward as Group CEO. “Her appointment has been a great success,” she adds.

The issues will vary with each CEO, which is why the mentoring relationship should follow a pathway defined by the mentee.

“This is not a place for blueprints,” says Michael. “In some meetings people might want to discuss the challenges immediately in front of them, on other occasions they might want to look further forward, or may even discuss something completely outside their working life. Addressing the whole person is very important but doing that in a way that doesn’t feel artificial or pre-programmed is key.”

Highlighting the different approaches, Tom describes how his mentor shadowed him through a variety of meetings: “She pointed out how much I adjust my behaviour to different settings without realising it. ‘There is more than one Tom Taylor,’ was her phrase. I was doing this unconsciously but once I realised that I could develop this approach as a tool, it made me a better CEO.”

Another pivotal aspect is the relationship dynamic. “Finding the right match between mentor and mentee is essential,” says Tom Beedham, Director of Programme Management at Criticaleye. “There needs to be the right chemistry and respect so that conversations can be open. Also, mentoring sessions need to be prioritised during what is inevitably a busy time for a new CEO.”

Mentoring relationships should evolve with the mentee’s needs and it’s important to be fluid. For this reason, a mentee should not be reticent to move on, indeed their mentor will have benefited too.

What does the mentor gain? Penny explains: “Exposure to different business sectors, which helps keep me up-to-date with current business challenges. Plus there’s the buzz of seeing someone develop in a challenging role.”

By Mary-Anne Baldwin, Editor – Corporate 

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.


Say Hello to the Digital Native

Comm update Face - 6 august

If only sauntering into a board meeting with the latest tablet was enough to make you au fait with the technology revolutionising the business world. To really help bridge the knowledge gap, a growing number of companies are recruiting ‘digital natives’ or have created ‘shadow boards’ and ‘reverse mentoring’ programmes, whereby those who lack seniority but understand digital can teach executives what they need to know.

Debbie Hewitt, Non-executive Chairman of clothing retailer Moss Bros, says: “I’ve seen digital natives appointed and also shadow boards used as a way to supplement a board’s digital skills. Both can work and provide a way of getting all directors up-to-speed on the trends and also in thinking differently about how a business might develop.”

It makes sense to bring in true advocates for harnessing data and using social media. Cath Keers, Non-executive Director for telecommunications concern Telefónica O2 Europe and Home Retail Group, comments: “I would be in favour of anything that would help boards understand the consumers and businesses they serve, whether that’s through using digital natives, shadow boards or just getting people to use it more and putting them in situations where they’re with customers, so they can see how they use it.”

Be that as it may, there is a danger that in some companies these measures could result in a deferral of responsibility, confirming prejudices within the minds of directors that ‘this is just for kids’, and therefore excusing them from their duty to get to grips with the impact of new technology. Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News and World Service, comments: “If boards aren’t fully grasping everything digital, it’s not necessarily a generational issue. I’m in my mid-50s and I’m a digital enthusiast, so I think it’s more about attitude and people’s preparedness to change.”

Bill Payne, General Manager of Customer Experience and Industries for IBM, regards the lack of understanding on many British boards as disturbing when it comes to implementing a multichannel strategy. “Shadow boards, digital natives – for me, these are somewhat ridiculous and obscure distractions,” he says. “It’s another example of leaders living in denial about why they have to be the agents of change. It’s not a generational thing – it’s a vision thing.”

The goal is to link up bricks and mortar, web, mobile, contact centre and social customer contact. If driving such integration is not a boardroom issue, it’s hard to know what is given that it requires investment and a shift in strategy. Peter comments: “It’s slightly unrealistic to say that you could have an alternative management structure. There should always be clear, single accountability at the top of organisations. And for digital to be truly successful it’s got to be integrated into the existing business.”

By way of example, Simon Johnson, Group Managing Director for UK & International at publisher HarperCollins, has recruited individuals who can crunch data around pricing of the company’s e-book catalogue. “I now have a team of PhD mathematicians who put code together, manage big data sets and are engaged with the board – [who] understand the context of the data – and they use that to provide recommendations on how we should price our catalogue on a real-time basis,” he says, adding that so far the results have been powerful but a whole lot more can be done in this area.

Sure, initiatives like shadow boards and reverse mentoring won’t do any harm, but they have to be complementing a more fundamental involvement from directors. According to Jason Keane, CEO of video service delivery company Saffron Digital, “you need a digital tsar who not only understands the digital channel but also the existing channels and where the business today is very successful”.

Without passion, know-how and engagement, a company is going to struggle. Besides, it’s not enough anymore to just have a multichannel presence – that ship sailed long ago. “The skill comes in knowing how to get a return on investment from digital,” says Jason.

For the CEO and chairman, the challenge is to decide exactly how to drive the agenda. It’s a case of looking at the board and themselves to see if everyone is collectively prepared to adapt and become natives in the digital landscape.

If not, then it’s time to look for replacements.

I hope to see you soon.


For a longer version of this article, please click here

Tomorrow’s Leaders

There is a distinct lack of imagination among many businesses when it comes to developing the next generation of leaders. All too often, when the best and brightest minds get their chance to lead, their lack of preparation for the top job leaves them unable to see the bigger picture, lacking the perspective necessary to be effective in the role.

Serious competitive advantage is being lost, not to mention talent wasted, as bad habits and shortcomings are allowed to become ingrained over the years. Rudi Kindts, Former Group HR Director of British American Tobacco, says, “The ideal development for the C-Suite begins early in a manager’s career. Through a mix of experiences (strategic, commercial and leadership challenges), hard-nosed performance feedback and coaching combined with a willingness to listen and learn, future leaders understand what it means to transition from one leadership level to another.”

It’s unwise for those managers who are destined for greater things to be left for too long as masters of a particular channel or area of operation. They should be tested and challenged and, importantly, encouraged to question themselves, meeting new people through networking, so they are consistently seeking to improve their knowledge and ability to inspire others.

Gary Kildare, Vice President of Human Resources for Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific at IBM, says, “It is evident that the level of global thinking and citizenship required from leaders today is absolutely unprecedented. They can help to provide a view of the future through their creativity and vision; it is they who will encourage collaboration through teamwork and open access… Leaders must be able to shift from strategy to operations swiftly to ensure they can execute regardless of the business environment.”

Match fit 

In practical terms, a manager who is moving to an executive or even non-executive role has to accept that a different approach will be required. Fiona Briault, Retail Director for George, the clothing chain of Asda, says, “I thought long and hard about how I would flex my style and behaviour as I moved to a board position… The focus required a shift from [resolving] business challenges to asking the right questions to stimulate others to debate and find solutions.”

Executives need to have their horizons broadened. Mark Phillips, SVP for Medicine and Process Delivery at GlaxoSmithKline, comments, “You have got to be able to provide insight and context and that has to come from a broader understanding around the company. That means the environment you’re operating in; what you’re trying to achieve as a business and from customers and business partners.

“The bottom line is that, as you go up the corporate ladder, it’s not about you doing it but getting other people to do it. A lot of that comes from understanding where to make the connections and how to unlock things – if you think you’re going to do it all by yourself then you shouldn’t be in the role as you’re restricting the bandwidth of the organisation.”

Nandani Lynton, Criticaleye Thought Leader and Adjunct Professor of Management at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says that it’s a case of putting talented individuals into various front line situations. “Senior execs should be allowed to experience the day-to-day reality of another market… You don’t need a structured development programme to organise this – one day a year would make a huge difference.”

In addition to this, she suggests that “high potentials” could take responsible positions within voluntary organisations for a year. “They will learn how to influence without power, how to deal with egos in a different setting and gain experience of the NGO (non-governmental organisation) view that can be extremely helpful in the future.”

Support mechanisms

This level of commitment is notable by its absence in the majority of companies. Jacqui Grey, Managing Director of leadership and executive coaching company, Transition Ltd, comments, “Whilst [individuals] are happy to present and go to conferences, the idea that they may need any form of development is often overlooked. There is a tendency to do this outside of the organisation either by attending a top business school ‘one off’ course in an exotic location, or by engaging an executive coach where human frailties may be discussed in private.”

A business must have clarity about what it wants from its designated ‘special ones’. Neil Braithwaite, Managing Director for Specialist Retail at the Co-operative Group, comments, “In looking to develop their current and potential business leaders, organisations should first ensure they have the right foundations in place. This means having a clear definition of the leadership model that is right for them, such as what are the behaviours that define a good leader in an organisation.

“There should also be a strong performance management system that clearly identifies high performance and potential, allied to a mature approach to succession planning, matching gaps and potential exposures to the development needs of key individuals.”

If this is to work effectively, it must have full endorsement from the existing leadership team. Neil explains, “For development programmes to succeed, not only do they need to be built with solid foundations but also, and probably more importantly, they need the demonstrable commitment of the CEO and the most senior management in the business.

“This can take many forms, but fundamentally it requires them to take some risk in pushing good people to stretch themselves away from their comfort zone to ensure they really broaden out as leaders.”

The consensus from discussions with Members of the Criticaleye Community is that sound leadership qualities are created by:

•    Effective communication – From being able inspire all levels of staff to engaging with the media, clarity and visibility are expected from leaders

•    Networking – Future business leaders aren’t afraid to leave their comfort zones. They are keen to meet new people and, in addition to this, they will be eager to gain experience by shifting to different areas of the business, taking on secondments elsewhere and being assigned challenging projects in order to develop agile thinking and problem solving skills

•    Personal awareness – Invariably, businesses make the mistake of teaching technical expertise first, while people skills and emotional intelligence are deemed secondary

•    Mentoring / coaching –  Whether they’re inside or outside a company, having someone as a sounding board can lead to invaluable insights

•    Walking the ‘shop floor’ – Diversity of experience is invaluable, but the best executives are also in touch with customers, products and the services of a business

None of this is to suggest that technical expertise and training programmes are not to be held in high regard. Of course they are but in the competitive global markets that companies operate in today, it is simply a fact that this is no longer enough and that the best leaders need a more rounded set of skills and qualities to be successful.

Gary Browning, Chief Executive of HR consulting and people performance company Penna, says, “Good leaders must communicate with inspiration and passion, building trust, belief and engagement throughout the organisation. Engagement is one of the closest factors correlated to organisational performance. This, I believe, is harder to develop but it’s not impossible to get improvements.”

The fact is that anyone aspiring to a position of leadership within an organisation cannot be one dimensional. Mark comments, “If you have only achieved in a particular area and dabbled in another, I struggle to understand how that is going to make you capable of being a senior leader. There are very few senior leadership positions where your value depends purely on the expertise you bring in one area.”

Excellence is a given. Leadership requires something different and a large number of companies continue to misunderstand and underestimate what is required to forge individuals who can drive and deliver outstanding results.

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

I hope to see you soon