DISCUSSION Mentoring as a force for change

by Luke Robinson _______9th April 2014
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By Peninah Thomson, OBE
Member of the Senior Advisory Panel of the Tomorrow’s Global Leaders sproject.

Mentoring has long been valued as a process through which a more experienced person can help another by providing them guidance, support, information and feedback to help them realise their development potential. Such mentoring normally takes place within a company, where a more senior mentor uses wisdom gained from experience to help a more junior member of staff to navigate the career hierarchy. Its application to relationships between people in different companies, however, is far rarer. But back in 2003, a small group of us put our heads together to see what we could do to address the paucity of female talent on the boards of UK companies. How could we help able, first class businesswomen, make that step into the boardroom? And at the same time, how could we help UK business gain the benefits of this talent? After some thought, we came upon an idea: what if we were to catalyse mentoring relationships between these women and the senior people who knew all about how boards work – the Chairmen? And what if these relationships were built across companies, so that the work of addressing how to help women attain board presence was raised at the UK plc level? Thus the FTSE® 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme was born.

Eleven years later we are able to look back on more than 130 trusting, confidential, mentoring relationships between a chairman or chief executive of a FTSE company and a senior woman in a different FTSE company or major public sector organisation. We can also witness the benefit – both for business and to the women themselves – of such mentoring: 34 of the women have been appointed to the board or ExCo of another FTSE company, and many more have attained board positions in non FTSE companies, private companies and charities or have been promoted to senior roles in the UK civil service.

One of the interesting findings has been the difference it makes that these mentoring relationships are cross-company. Both Mentees and Mentors have noted that the external nature of the relationship encourages openness and candour on both sides and a climate of safety that helps learning. Also, because the pair will often come from very different industry and sector backgrounds, the conversation is by necessity steered away from business content towards the personal, interpersonal and political intricacies of managing relationship dynamics and determining career decisions.

“It is really empowering and helpful to have an experienced Mentor who does not have any agenda regarding my career, ambitions or choices. I can talk totally openly and ask for really honest feedback. He need have no concern that I take anything the wrong way, or that anything is too harsh as we both know he is not involved in decisions about my future progression.”

We therefore take great care in linking Mentees and Mentors in relationships which are likely to provide the greatest learning and benefit.

“I have found the key strength of the Programme has been its ability to match Mentors with Mentees of different backgrounds and experiences. My Mentor has been able to show me a previously unknown world and enabled me to look afresh at what I do, how I lead and what levers I can use to make an even stronger impact in my business. This interaction has given me the opportunity to benchmark my leadership skills and understand better the contribution I have made and the potential I have.”

A sceptical onlooker may question whether this process is primarily about successful men guiding high potential women in how to “learn the ropes”. Our evidence shows that the mentoring is far from just a one-way process. The openness and trust generated in the meetings enables Mentors to gain invaluable insight into the challenges and dilemmas faced by aspiring women – opening their consciousness to issues that would otherwise be hidden to them. In the words of one:

“As a Mentor, the insights you gain are hugely informative – the development is certainly not one way.”

The success of the Programme has encouraged us to use the same cross-company mentoring principle to help increase the pipeline of female talent to executive level. In 2013 we piloted a mentoring programme for these “next generation” women, this time inviting women alumnae from the Executive Programme who had completed their mentoring relationships with chairmen, to share their wisdom and experience with more junior women. Their work has resulted in a capability and confidence shift in the pilot group and a decision to expand this Programme, now called the Next Generation Women Leaders Programme,  to a further 20 women in 2014.

Our experience shows that mentoring is an extraordinarily effective way of transferring not only knowledge and skills, but also wisdom and experience from one group of people to another. It facilitates an insightful and empathetic sharing of authority and power, and enables one generation to stretch out a helping hand to another. The goodwill and generosity of spirit characterised by mentoring at its best can be a powerful force for good, as well as an influential and effective mechanism – a real asset in the toolkit of any leader who genuinely wishes to share their wisdom with others.

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