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The most effective CEOs and senior executives understand that they don’t have all the answers. While successful, they still recognise the value of other opinions, especially from those who have operated at the coalface of leadership, experiencing the highs and lows of a top-level role.   

In a recent poll conducted by Criticaleye, 95 per cent of respondents identified mentoring as an essential leadership tool for senior executives. Tom Beedham, Director of Programme Development at Criticaleye, says: “It’s common for business leaders to be intently focused on strategy and operations, so much so, that they’re blinded to the environment beyond. Mentoring is really about getting you to shift your perspective so that you see outside of your bubble. 
“It allows you the time and space to dissect issues and find solutions that can’t enter a mind swamped with operational tasks.”
Mark Parsons, Chief Customer Officer, UK&I, DHL Supply Chain, notes that “every mentee will have different priorities they want to achieve – one may be very career-oriented, whereas another might want insights on how the board operates”. 

Each mentor-mentee pairing has a shelf-life if it’s going to deliver maximum impact, claims Mark. “I don’t have a mentor that I’ve remained with for more than five years. After that time, in effect, they know what you’re about so although they care and can have a healthy dialogue with you, personally for me, it’s not challenging,” he adds. 

While most large organisations will offer an internal mentoring scheme of some kind, it’s important to gain external points of view when you reach the higher echelons of leadership. Mark Castle, Deputy COO, Mace Group, comments: “When you get to director level and above, I would recommend a mentor external to the business. Having fresh perspectives from senior executives who have experience in different industries is a good thing because it broadens the conversation, advice and perspectives.”

Without these external reference points, Mark comments that “the risk is you just continue to do what you have always done... if you are only dealing with your peer group or seniors within an organisation, the range of thought and knowledge transfer can be limited".
Now listen… 

The role of a mentor is primarily to be a sounding board. Mark Parsons explains: “If I’m being coached, it’s about how I deliver outcomes, and if I’m being mentored it’s about how I change my perspective to enable me to be more successful.”

For Mark, this involves thinking about the narratives needed to drive organisational change. He says: “I try and use the mentor relationship to engage in that storytelling, allowing me to better understand what the other person’s perspective may be, what drives it and how they might react to things I might say or do. In effect, enabling me to be more prepared as an individual for a wider set of discussions. 

“That really has been driven by the role I’m in, which is all about transforming stuff. Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking to achieve out of the mentoring.”

While each mentor may have their own style, they all need to have a genuine interest in people. Alastair Lyons, who is Deputy Chairman of Bovis Homes Group, Chairman of Glas Cymru (Welsh Water), as well as being a Criticaleye Board Mentor, comments: “It really is about listening to them and the challenges they are facing in their role. In other cases, it’s about understanding the stages they’ve reached in their careers and what options they have to go forward.” 

According to Alastair: “Constructive listening is actually quite difficult, because the mentee is looking for you to engage with them in working through the thought process. You need to formulate the questions that are going to help them take their thinking to the next stage. 

“Your demeanour and engagement in that conversation will itself determine the mentee’s willingness to develop that thought process further with you.” 

Fundamentally, Alastair says that while each session has to be more than a nice chat, mentoring is not about giving answers. He explains: “You’re providing input, advice and examples from your own experience of having had similar issues or choices, but you are helping them think through what they want to do.” 

Ruth Cairnie, who is a Criticaleye Board Mentor, as well as a Non-executive Director for Associated British Foods and Rolls-Royce plc, builds on the point about how to interact with mentees. “The most important and helpful thing is to provide different perspectives and to encourage the mentee to just think about things from various angles. 

“Sometimes, they need to think about putting themselves in another person’s shoes, or be encouraged to see the bigger picture. Very often people are wrapped up in their own mindset, whether they are facing a business issue, or it’s about their own career.”

Both parties have to trust one another if they are going to address the real issues. She continues: “One way or another, there’s almost always an important element of development to look into. So you really must clarify what the mentee's capabilities are and where they want to go. You then have to translate that into some steps that they could take – I often find people feel it’s quite hard to structure their thinking when it comes to themselves.” 

What drives Ruth as a mentor is that she is “insatiably curious”. She explains: “I’m asking questions because I want to find out and I’m really interested. For example, if their concern is not getting their next promotion – I would ask: ‘Why do you want that promotion? Why is it so important? What would you do if it didn’t come through? What other options have you considered if it doesn’t?’ 

“It’s about trying to shine a light on completely different areas for them. There is no magic way and sometimes you have to talk to someone several times before you hit on it.”

To reap the rewards of mentoring, both parties will have to fully commit. Tom of Criticaleye says: “You get out of it what you put in. You can’t just give a mentor an hour of your time and expect solutions – you need to translate those self-reflections into actions, objectives and measurable targets.”

By Marc Barber, Managing Editor, Criticaleye