At a glance
Take a look into the lives of some of the world’s most accomplished people and you soon discover that success is not a one-person show.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, one of the world’s most powerful women in business, acknowledges the critical difference her mentor Larry Summers, a college professor who would later become US treasury secretary, made to her career.
Musician Bob Dylan was mentored by fellow singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, and media giant Oprah Winfrey acknowledges the late poet Maya Angelou as someone who was always there for her.
People who receive mentoring are better paid and feel more satisfied with both their job and their career progression, according to a 2017 Deloitte report Turning the Gender Diversity Dial.
David Cuda CPA, director of customer commercial finance at Optus, believes that everyone should have the opportunity to access mentoring.
“Over my 25 years of working, I’ve been lucky enough to have three key people I could turn to for support at different stages. It’s so important to have someone you trust, to talk to and get good advice from.”
For the last eight years, Cuda has been sharing his own wisdom with a steady stream of mentees.
Mentoring – a learning relationship where someone more experienced puts time and energy into a less experienced person’s development – is not new. In the last few decades, however, it has become more formalised and recognised as a valuable form of professional development, according to Sophie McCarthy, director of McCarthy Mentoring.
“It’s commonly used to develop leaders, or for on-boarding graduates and new hires,” she says.
In today’s highly mobile labour market, mentoring can also be used to help prevent some of the fallout from people changing jobs more often, explains McCarthy.
Pairing a mature mentor with a promising protégé, for example, can help prevent brain drain by capturing that person’s wisdom before he or she leaves an organisation. It may also help keep valued up-and-coming members of the team from jumping ship.
The art of mentoring
“Mentees can make the mistake of thinking ‘I just need to turn up and the mentor will do it for me’,” says director of The Art of Mentoring, Melissa Richardson, who has been advising on workplace mentoring for 20 years.
Instead, mentees need to set the direction by bringing clear goals to the relationship and preparing for each session.
Logistics are also important. “The most common cause of relationship breakdown that we see stems from the couple not having contracted how they will work together – when, where and how they will meet, what means of communication they’ll use and what will happen if one party has to cancel,” says Richardson. She recommends that people spend their first meeting together talking about this.
As a mentor, you might think that guiding a junior worker will come naturally due to your extra years on the job. However, in the experience of David Clutterbuck, an international pioneer of workplace mentoring and coaching, only about a third of mentoring relationships will work without preparation. Two in three will work if the mentor is trained, and training both the mentor and mentee should yield a 90 per cent success rate.
Training covers areas such as how to align expectations, building rapport and trust, goal setting and expected behaviours (a code of conduct). Mentors should also be supported to develop their skills in listening, asking questions, guiding their mentees, and in how to be an effective role model.
For the past 12 years, George Quek, director of Distinctions Asia, has been helping organisations across Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China set up mentoring programs.
He says that training mentors is especially important in Asian cultures, which tend to be more authoritarian than egalitarian.
“Mentors need to learn to slow down and focus on nurturing the person, not just performance,” says Quek.
“Since mentees may be reluctant to expose their shortcomings to a superior, the mentor needs to demonstrate it’s safe to do so.”
Quek encourages mentors to share their life stories, including how they messed up, not just how they succeeded.
Matchmaking software can help
Pairing the right mentors and mentees is also a critical part of the mentoring process, but what makes for a perfect match?
“The strongest relationships are based on mutual respect,” says McCarthy. “Our tendency is to choose someone like ourselves, however you want your mentor to be different enough to stretch your thinking but not so different you clash. That’s the tension.”
Matchmaking can be done manually by a manager, or humans and machines can work together to streamline the dating process and reduce the considerable administrative load of matching and monitoring relationships.
Before Richardson introduced the Art of Mentoring software to the Law Society of NSW, the society would take weeks to match a hundred pairs. Their method? Staring at spreadsheets plastered on the office wall. Now the matching process is done in less than a day, she says.
The software is used to create a short list, then mentors are recommended, based on what the client knows about the people involved, as well as answers in the free-text section of the application form.
Taking the DIY option to find a mentor
How can you go about finding a mentor for yourself if you don’t have a workplace program to tap into, or you’d prefer an external mentor, or you’re self-employed?
When Colleen Blount CPA, financial controller at the Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association in Brisbane, wanted an external mentor to help manage her career up to the next level, she used the services of The Outperformer, a provider of career management services for accountants and finance professionals, to make a connection.
Matched with an interstate mentor, Blount and her mentor have a six-weekly phone appointment. “Having an external mentor works really well, and I benefit from his global experience,” says Blount.
“The process is giving me more insight into the areas I need to focus on to get to the next level in my career. It’s also nudging me to approach the people I need to get to know.”
For the self-employed, mentoring can act as a lifeline, especially in the early years of going it alone, when business survival can be touch and go.
Vinomofo chief executive Andre Eikmeier is so grateful for the benefits of the mentoring he received in the start-up years of founding the wine e-retailer, he now mentors other entrepreneurs.
“I’m often asked, ‘how do I find someone to mentor me?’,” says Eikmeier. “If you are asking this question you’re not researching your field well enough. You should know who’s doing something you admire in your space.”
He suggests using networking events, conferences, podcasts, social media or simply Google to find someone you want to learn from.
However, Eikmeier also advises taking things slow. “Just like when you’re dating, you don’t want to come on too strong, too soon. For example, don’t just go up to someone after a conference talk, say hi, then email them asking to mentor you.”
Do some groundwork first to create a connection and incentive, he suggests. Offer to intern for a week, or get on social media and actively promote and endorse his or her business to your network, with no strings attached.
Early on in the mentoring relationship, show that you are willing to learn by working on issues between sessions.
“The most frustrating thing about mentoring is lack of progress in the mentee,” says Eikmeier, “You really don’t want to be solving the same problem over and over.”
As for the most rewarding aspect of mentoring, Eikmeier and Cuda agree that there’s nothing like the satisfaction of seeing another person blossom.
“It’s also good for the organisation,” says Cuda. “When staff see that their leaders are willing to take time to share their knowledge, this helps build a culture of trust.”
At a time when people are switching jobs and workplaces faster than ever before, mentoring grows enduring relationships that trigger a chain reaction of paying it forward. It’s not for the money – mentors are typically unpaid – but for the joy of giving.
Searching for mentoring programs? The Australian Government's website provides links to business mentoring services nationally. Similarly, many universities and industry groups also support alumni mentoring programs.
Tips for mentees: step up – it’s your gig!
- Clarify your goals: explain to your mentor what you want from your career, and from mentoring.
- Come prepared: set up an agenda ahead of meetings and give your mentor enough time in advance to review any materials.
- Remember, it’s your responsibility to keep the relationship going: you don’t want your mentor saying, “I haven’t heard from you”.
- Respect your mentor’s boundaries: create upfront agreements about what to do if time-sensitive issues arise outside your organised meetings.
- Take action between sessions: be willing to try new things and to respond to suggestions. However, always filter any advice through your own instincts, as you are ultimately responsible for your own actions.
- Be grateful: express your appreciation and tell your mentor what a difference it is making to you. Ask if there is any way you can help your mentor.
David Cuda CPA
“When I first started mentoring I was a little apprehensive. Here was someone looking up to me for guidance and advice. What did I know? I had my own challenges and learning needs.”
Tip: “Really try to be a good listener, and to have coaching conversations versus directive ones. Also remember you aren’t there to be friends, but to further their development, so don’t avoid giving critical feedback.”
“At the start, I had all the wrong instincts – I naturally am a doer, not an asker.”
Tip: “See if you could rephrase their problem or questions as an analogy or metaphor or story they can glean the learnings from. You don’t just want to be a solution provider, otherwise you will always be needed.”
Why accountants need mentoring
Colleen Blount CPA, mentee
“Mentoring is especially important for accountants who want to keep pace with the changing function of finance ... As technology automates many of the tasks accountants have traditionally performed, we need to hone other skills that will add value to the business, such as the ability to help others interpret reports, to find insights in them to guide business decisions, to communicate with a range of stakeholders, or collaborate with other parts of the business. These types of soft skills are really suited to mentoring.”
Tips for mentors: stop telling and start listening
- Hone your listening skills: the more you understand your mentee, the better able you’ll be to offer support in a way that makes sense to them.
- Learn how to ask good questions: this can help improve the quality of your mentee’s thinking.
- Discern when it is appropriate to offer a direct answer versus when it’s better to coach a mentee through their question or problem.
- Open doors by sharing some of your personal and business opportunities and contacts, where you feel it is appropriate.
- Don’t shy away from offering corrective feedback when needed – in a private, respectful manner. You are not there to be a friend.
- Take a long-term view and invest in the relationship. In years to come this person is likely to still be a valuable person in your network.
- Relax – you don’t have to have all the answers! Focus on building your self-awareness rather than boosting your status.