New research from the Association for Talent Development (ATD) finally puts to bed any questions about the benefits of mentoring. The findings confirm that organisations with mentoring programmes enjoy higher employee engagement and retention, see greater support for the growth of high-potential employees, and realise both improved intra-organisational relationships and better collaboration and knowledge management and transfer.
I’ve always believed in the power of mentoring, and I know from speaking with colleagues that very few of us got to leadership positions without at some stage encountering that one person who offered guidance, encouragement and was in some way instrumental to our success.
While all of us received words of wisdom, here are some of my favourite pieces of advice.
Trish Burridge, Director, Consulting Services, Skillsoft EMEA
Over a period of 20 years, I received informal guidance and advice from a senior executive at the company where we both worked. The most important lesson he ever imparted was to look for a solution and not just focus on the problem. People are often swift to point out what’s wrong, but rarely do they follow this up with suggestions, ideas or proposed solutions. Thanks to his mentoring I ask my teams for their opinions when we are working through a problem or trying to improve a current process, rather than feel I have to solve all the issues. I remind them that it is better to at least attempt a solution, even if it appears unworkable than expect others to “put it right.” Trying to find answers to questions demonstrates an engagement with their work that extends beyond criticism that is not constructive.
My new manager and mentor taught me the importance of adaptability. I work with a diverse group of industries and people and trying to impose one business style on all is neither helpful nor productive. I’ve learnt now to personalise my interactions with each to ensure I’m interacting with them in a way that is appropriate for them. For some, this means I’ll call and speak directly to the individual, while others I know prefer to use written communication, for example. Tailoring my behaviour to fit with an individual’s preferred business style is reaping huge rewards, and I’ve found it has improved some relationships in most unexpected ways.
Apratim Purakayastha, Chief Technology Officer, Skillsoft
I started my career in IBM Research, a company with a revered tradition of priming its employees for senior roles. With a Ph.D. in Computer Science, I began as a research staff member diving deep into technical topics. At IBM Research there comes a time when you must decide whether to stay in the technology sector and eventually become an IBM Fellow or follow a management track toward becoming an executive. It is a tough decision to make for those of us with deep technical roots.
My mentor was then the head of the Software Group for IBM. He proposed that I try a new assignment that involved me leading on a project to create a global standard in mobile computing. This task included core technology work as well as building consensus and support with partner companies in the same industry. The experience taught me some valuable lessons things that I have cherished throughout the rest of my career. I learned about the importance of considering conflicting viewpoints, including those that are non-technical, about managing diverse cultures and personalities and having a global perspective. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on this assignment, and the experience propelled me into technology management and then to general management.
Without my mentor’s advice and suggestion, I do not think I would have chosen this path, and I am delighted I did. His encouragement and support made all the difference as I stepped outside my natural comfort zone. And that is, what growth is all about.
Tara O’Sullivan, Chief Marketing Officer, Skillsoft
Throughout my career, I’ve helped quite a few people get jobs and promotions. I love when I can help in any way at all – I don’t call it mentoring, I think it is more about being a better person. And I also try to be a sponsor when I can. Sponsoring and mentoring are very different – sponsoring is speaking for someone, whereas mentoring is talking to someone. I think sponsorship, especially for women, is incredibly important.
The main element that I have learned from being mentored (and sponsored) is that you need to ask. You need to request someone else’s time to be a mentor. You need to ensure that you are asking the right person who is going to tell you the truth – not what you want to hear. So, make sure your mentor (or ideally sponsor) is going to help you play to your strengths and minimise or improve your weaknesses. It took me years (until I was in my 40’s) to recognise that people don’t plan projects as I do. Something that comes very naturally to me (and therefore I don’t identify as rare and wonderful) is something that differentiates me from other people. If I could share one piece of advice it is this – try to mentor someone today.
Christopher Sly, Solution Principal, IT & Digital, Skillsoft EMEA
In my experience mentoring is less about giving or receiving advice and more about its ability to empower. Over the course of my varied career, I have been fortunate enough to connect with a variety of people all of whom have helped shape my mind-set and enabled me to believe in myself, my talents and my capabilities. Like many others, I have always struggled with what psychologists call impostor syndrome, the idea that you have only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talents or abilities and leads many people to feel as they are a “fraud”. This self-doubt forces me to second guess my every decision, and although I usually gather together enough data to validate my business decisions, I still lack confidence. However, thanks to my many mentors I am better able to manage myself in such moments. My mentors were never part of any official programme, and I was never involved in any formal coaching sessions or programmes. Instead, it was just through everyday interactions and conversations with these people and the faith they placed in me that has helped boost my confidence. The key to a good mentor is not the label but a genuine concern for someone and a desire to instil confidence in them about both their career and their future.
Ellisa Harvey, EMEA Marketing Director, Skillsoft and SumTotal
I’ve received mentoring from a number of the female leaders in our business. The majority of the advice and support was around managing difficult conversations and conflict, how to manage up, how to align business goals with strategy and just general communication and influencing skills. As a female leader in a male-dominated sales organisation is itself a challenge, so getting invaluable coaching is helping me to build my confidence and skills at addressing problems and influencing opinions. One particular colleague offers me practical advice and tips around the subject of communication style. With her guidance, I now am in a much better position to manage conflict particularly those situations that involved heightened emotions. I am where I am today thanks to all the coaching and mentoring that I’ve received throughout my career.
Jeff Lyons SVP, Professional Services at SumTotal Systems
Early in my career having a senior leader as a mentor gave me a perspective about business that was vastly different to my own experience and as a result helped accelerate my career progression. It also helped me to find solutions more quickly and provided a comfortable environment where I could candidly discuss challenges with someone who, other than wanting to see me succeed, had no direct stake in the outcome. I believe it’s essential to have a mentor who is willing to have those difficult conversations. After all, it’s much easier to be open to contrary opinions when there is no upside to defending past actions or current ignorance.
Later in my career, having the opportunity to mentor someone else forced me to understand better and clarify my knowledge so that I could better apply and communicate a particular concept. I got as much out of those conversations as the mentee did. The experience also helped me understand how the rest of the organisation perceive the messaging and actions of the leadership team, which resulted in me changing and adjusting future communications to be more effective.
Potoula Chresomales, SVP, Product Management Skillsoft
I received three great pieces of advice from mentors, and they ring as true for me right now as they did when I first heard them. Early in my career, a mentor gave me a definition of leadership that helped me to manage my very first team. My mentor explained that Leadership = Vision + Confidence. You have to have a vision for where you are taking the business, and you have to convey that vision with confidence. That is the difference between a manager and a leader. The second piece of advice was about managing a transformation. This mentor always said, “start by starting” meaning think “agile” and take the first step. Once you see the result of the first step, you can adapt the plan. She also said, “you don’t have to play the hand you are dealt, get other cards.” By this, she meant that current processes, people, and procedures might no longer work in a transformation, so change them. Finally, the third piece of advice was to be a visible part of the industry you serve. This mentor urged me to get out of the office and spend as much time with our customers as possible. You will get more inspiration and more good ideas by looking “out” than by looking “in”.
Agata Nowakowska, Area VP, Skillsoft EMEA
I feel privileged because over the course of my career I have encountered many people who were supportive, open to giving some coaching and sharing their knowledge. When I got my first managerial role, my coach at the time provided me with some valuable thoughts. From him I understood that being a leader is not a title, it is a behaviour. He also helped me to understand the difference between a manager and a leader. He was a voracious reader and peppered almost every conversation with quotes. I still remember this one from Steve Jobs, “Management is about persuading people to do things they don’t want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do the things they never thought they could.” He also taught me that once you become a manager, it doesn’t mean you need to have all the answers. It is okay to admit to not knowing all the answers and to continue asking the critical questions. He also encouraged me to take measured risks, that making mistakes was part of the job as long as I learned from those mistakes.
Another mentor illustrated how I could inspire teamwork, ownership and accountability. He used to say to his team “you can win an opportunity without me, but you shouldn’t lose without me.” His insights encouraged me to become a mentor because thanks to him I realised part of being a leader is the ability to inspire others, to help others find the solutions they need to succeed in their jobs.
Tony Prevost is the HR Director for Skillsoft EMEA.