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To keep improving as a leader you need to find the time to pause and reflect on how you’re making decisions and what you might do differently. That’s where a mentor comes in; a good one will know when to speak, when to listen and be able to share their views based on years of experience in a way that is free of any hidden agenda or bias.

Mark Castle, Deputy Chief Operating Officer of international construction and consultancy concern Mace Group, was interested in having a mentor as he wanted to tap into the management experiences of other individuals who came from different organisations and industries. “I see my mentor four times a year and I guess I am sucking information out of these individuals as at various points in the cycle there are areas that I will be interested in talking to a mentor about,” he says. 

It’s all part of the healthy desire to widen knowledge. Geraint Anderson, CEO of TT Electronics, comments: “It’s been tremendous for me. To have someone who is truly independent who you can discuss issues with and talk to is superb. The chief executive position can be lonely and having an external mentor who has been there, done it and more, can add significant value just through occasional conversation or discussion.”

Paul Staples, Head of Corporate Finance at BNP Paribas, says: “I was fortunate to have a mentor at an early stage of my career in banking. The relationship was similar to that between an apprentice and a master craftsman; it helped me greatly in learning my trade. More recently, I have actively sought mentors from different walks of life, mainly outside my own professional sphere, to broaden and deepen my perspective on issues such as effective leadership.”

Two-way street

The saying ‘you get out what you put in’ certainly applies to mentoring. Leslie Van de Walle, Chairman of building materials supplier SIG plc and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, likes to set clear objectives over a six to 12 month period so results can be measured. “If a mentor makes you stop, pause, reflect, but you do nothing about it, then that’s not helpful,” he says, adding that executives need to be honest about their motives, such as whether they do really have what it takes to step up to the role of CEO.

Katherine Innes Ker, Senior Independent Director of transport concern Go-Ahead Group and also a Criticaleye Board Mentor, argues that it isn’t essential for an executive to have a mentor but it can certainly be useful. “It’s important that mentoring mustn’t be seen as a criticism but is part of [an executive's] training and development which helps bring out even more of their qualities,” she says. “It isn’t about teaching you what to do and how to be. It’s more of a sounding board where you have someone to whom you can turn to and say: ‘This is what I’m doing, is there anything I haven’t thought of? Have you done this before?’”

While there has to be chemistry between the mentor and mentee, or at least mutual respect, this can’t just be about cosy chats. The mentor, where appropriate, should be able to steer the conversation into taboo areas and tease out insecurities and concerns, plus the tactics to address them, in an open, non-dictatorial fashion. 

“The challenge dimension is really important,” says Bryan Marcus, Regional Head for Latin America at Volkswagen Financial Services. “The chances are that if you have been doing things in a certain way and they’ve been highly successful, you’re going to repeat them [so] somebody who has a slightly lateral or alternative view is very useful.”

Geraint says: “It’s good to be challenged in a different way to how the board challenges you, which is all about the business. This is more a personal thing about the impact you make and I think a mentor does that better than anybody else. I also think you can leverage their experience in working with boards.

“As a chief executive, it’s one thing running a company – and most of us have the skills to do that well – but how many of us really understand how to operate and work with a board? How to keep that board informed and the dynamics involved?... Having a mentor who has been in that chairmanship position and a chief executive too, who has that degree of experience, there’s nothing they haven’t seen before.”

Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman of the English Cities Fund and a Criticaleye Board Mentor, says that “for anyone who has a big, complex job, the key to improving performance is finding the time to reflect on what you’re doing, why you do it, how you might do it differently and how you might do it in the future.”

He recalls how, when Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council, he himself had a mentor who helped get to the heart of what needed to be done: “It was useful for me back then as my mentor at the time told me not to be snagged by issues which were not immediately relevant to the challenges at hand… He was very much about focusing on the immediate challenges and freeing yourself up from the baggage we all carry around – easier said than done, of course.”

Each mentor will have their own style and approach, with some preferring targets and goals while others will be more free-flowing. Likewise, there are executives who will switch mentors every year in order to keep the input fresh, whereas others are content to allow the relationship to develop over a longer period of time.

It’s a case of whatever works in order to be better at what you do. “You’re never too old to continue to learn and develop,” says Geraint

I hope to see you soon.