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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Mentoring Matters

By Peter Heginbotham OBE

In my own career I never had any formal mentoring except within my own firm (I still visit my two early mentors who are both aged 90 now!) As I went through a transition 20 odd years ago from being a commercial lawyer to running the firm, I learned on the job, always a risk, and also from mixing with all the people I came to know on the Boards of the Chamber of Commerce, Manchester Solutions and various other bodies. I learned a lot from them, whether from big companies or small. I came to realise how lucky I was to get a much broader experience than the daily grind of work could ever give me. The outside perspective made a huge difference to the way I ran the firm, and to my own career; indeed my work in semi-retirement (so-called!) is now a broadly based non-executive role.

A couple of years ago I decided I should put something back by becoming a volunteer mentor. I have worked with three businesses in that time and although all three tasks are formally completed, I am still in regular contact with the MD of one of the businesses whom I’m now helping on a new project. I found it a rewarding experience as all three businesses had very different aims and objectives, strengths and weaknesses. Also, they all came from different sectors; but, of course, many business problems and opportunities are just the same regardless of whether you grind out gadgets or supply services.

It’s important that as a mentor you never, or rarely, advise. The mentee will know his or her sector and employees better than you. The trick is to ask questions. “Why do you do it that way?” or “Have you thought of …?” This makes the mentee step outside him/herself and think again. He or she may still do the same as they first intended, but at least they have thought about it laterally. I equate it to being a football club chairman. The one who tells the manager to play 4-4-2 or to pick someone different at left back is a poor chairman. The one who gently asks: “Why do you play 4-3-3?” or “Have you thought of strengthening the left side?”, but then leaves it to the manager, is much more likely to be effective.

It’s fulfilling work being a mentor and worth the time and effort.

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