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Mentoring unpacked I: How it all began…

Maren and Margaret in conversation, November 2016 Image credit: Sarah Caroline Photography

Ever since I started working in a leadership role in Learning Technology I have had a mentor. My mentor, Margaret Bennett, has been a big influence on my practice for the past six years and I have come to value the relationship we’ve built and the work we have done together very highly.

As part of my commitment to an open approach to leadership, I’ve asked Margaret to collaborate with me on this three part series to share our insights into being a mentor and what it’s like to have one.

We’ve divided our story into three parts:

There are a few reasons why we want to unpack our experience and share it more widely: for us it is a useful way to reflect on the work we have done and a way to better understand each other’s perspectives; and we also hope these posts will provide inspiration for your own mentoring journeys whatever shape or form they make take.

A note on what we haven’t written about: Many aspects of mentoring, particularly in a leadership position, are around sensitive issues – both personal and professional. We have tried to find a balance between sharing insights that illustrate our experience, including the ups and downs we have worked through, and avoiding sharing details which are confidential or too personal.

Now that you know what to expect, and you are still reading, let’s go back to the very beginning, the start of our story.

How it all began… meeting each other for the first time

Margaret and I started working together in 2012 and as I had never had any formal mentoring before that, I was not entirely convinced that I needed or wanted a mentor when we first met.

Indeed, I was about to start a new and exciting job at the end of a gruelling recruitment process that had taken months and included extensive psychometric testing, practical skills exercises, presentation and interview, so I wasn’t sure whether the suggestion to have a mentor didn’t reflect a lack of confidence in my ability to succeed.

In addition, I had practical concerns, such as how we would build trust, how often we would meet or talk, what kinds of things we would discuss and to what extend I would really get something out of it. In short, I was highly doubtful whether a mentor would really be on my side and whether I had time to invest in something I didn’t see the value of when there was so much to be getting on with.

Despite these doubts I knew that I had a big challenge ahead and that I wouldn’t be very effective in my role if I didn’t listen to advice or make use of help when it was offered. So I decided to at least give mentoring a go, to at least go to the first meeting. I was also curious to meet the person whom my predecessor had recommended. That, actually, made me more doubtful about working with Margaret initially, because I felt impatient to stand on my own two feet, but the recommendation turned out to be excellent and six years later, I am still extremely grateful for what led to establishing one of the most important relationships in my life.

Back to late February 2012, when after an initial email exchange I was on my way to meet Margaret for the first time. I can recall that early morning train journey from Oxford to Sheffield very clearly. I was nervous and apprehensive, trying to decide what I would say or do if things went well and if they didn’t work out. I had nothing except a brief email exchange to go on, so I had no idea what to expect.

That’s what it was like when we first started working together from my perspective. Margaret, thinking back to that first meeting and how we got started, how did you prepare for that? What stands out from your perspective?

When I first met you, Maren, I did not know anything about you but I knew I could give practical help as well as hoping to provide emotional support. Having run some small and larger charities I have lots of practical tools and templates that I can share with Maren. Not having to reinvent the wheel and finding out how other people do things can save Maren a lot of time and energy. It isn’t essential but it meant our relationship had some quick wins.

I’d been a chief executive of a charity so knew how lonely it could be with a voluntary chair as my line manager and where I could only share so much with the staff I managed. I knew how valuable having a safe space where I could admit doubt, anger or pain could be so I wanted to provide that for Maren. And a place to celebrate and laugh without being judged.

I’d had an excellent mentor when I’d been a chief executive and later a very helpful coach when things had been very hard. I knew what good looked like for me so had an idea of what it could be for Maren too.

So that was how things started with a meeting in the Winter Gardens in Sheffield over a few cups of tea that turned quickly into a couple of hours of intense conversation. Until that meeting I had no idea how much I had to say, share and reflect on – but talking to Margaret it quickly became apparent that there was a lot to discuss.

How we made it work… and some of the benefits of having a mentor (in a small organisation)

Once we got started, it quickly became clear how many benefits having a mentor can have, particularly if you work in a small organisation. Some of these were obvious from the start, but others only became apparent over time. To some extend the benefits of having a mentor will depend on the individuals involved and the relationship you can build, but many positive aspects are more generally applicable.

From my perspective, working in a small organisation in which I was the only or later one of two senior staff, gives me limited scope for dialogue with or support from someone who is not either reporting to me or someone I report to. Particularly in volunteer-led organisations, small charities or membership bodies, it’s often difficult to provide effective support for senior staff like me.

Working with Margaret had the advantage of me being able to share ideas or concerns without the constraints of another (reporting) relationship. As an external person to work with, Margaret prompted me to step back from day to day work and look at things from a different perspective – to get out of the mindset within the organisation.

Another benefit of having a mentor when you lead a small team or organisation is that it can be difficult to advocate for yourself at times and having a more independent, external voice when negotiating for yourself can be really helpful and also provide support for your Board or colleagues. Carrying out the annual appraisal process and collecting 360 degree feedback is an example of when having a mentor proved extremely useful.

Over time and through the annual appraisal process and more strategic work, we identified a number of areas in which permanent support was needed, HR for example, and put that into place. Other areas that we worked on together resolved themselves and didn’t require permanent action or support. In that manner, mentoring helped shape my role and the support required for it for the benefit of the organisation and in a manner that would not have been possible with only input from other staff or the Board.

As well as the practical advice and support that mentoring provided for me, the sense that the organisation I work for is prepared to invest resource into a mentor for me has also made me feel valued and better supported and that has made a big difference, in particular during difficult periods.

Margaret, what do think made a difference for us, what helped us make it work?

Having the same values is really important – valuing staff, empowering people, making a difference,  exploring new ideas, having fun and being creative.
We are both quite similar characters (same Myers Briggs, I think) but that is not as important as sharing the same values. And we love working collaboratively.

We quickly found a way to be reflective and questioning – happy to share emotions and feeling and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t work.

Maren does a lot of thinking in between sessions and writes things down even if she doesn’t share it all with me. So things move on quickly even if we don’t meet for several months. It is very satisfying to mentor Maren as things get taken forward and implemented brilliantly after our sessions.

We also share a willingness to try out different ways of working together – mentoring while we walk in the park, sitting on a bench in the sunshine, or in a sauna planning strategy! You can say some things much more easily to someone you are walking beside than when you are face to face. You can be more tentative, more playful and so creative over a nice meal (and a good French red!)  Some of Maren’s bravest decisions came after some more informal chat while we were admiring the Botanical Gardens or warming ourselves in front of a roaring fire.

It’s not always about having an answer immediately but trusting that together we can find an answer if we talk things through. In the early days, I sometimes thought I have no idea what to do or say in this situation but by the end of the session we had always got to a good solution or a better place.

Sometimes just listening is enough.

Your perspectives really chimes with me and I clearly found having someone to talk to crucially important. Leading a small organisation or team can be really challenging and in particular when I first started in the role I found it difficult to find the right balance between being a leader and line manager whilst getting support from colleagues. I didn’t have the network I have now and I often felt lonely or isolated. Having a mentor meant that I could explore the more difficult, personal aspects of my work in a safe space, reflecting on how I felt, but also having someone to talk to who had experienced similar challenges for themselves. Margaret made me see commonalities with her own and others’ professional journeys, in particular how other women have succeeded in leadership positions.

One of the questions we came back to again and again is what kind of chief executive I want to be. In other words, what do I aspire to – and that is a very interesting question to ask yourself in relation to your own role. What do you want to be? How do you want to work or lead? What kind of example do you want to set? What do you want to communicate, to get across?

I have never stopped asking myself that question and as I have developed in my role and gained more experience and a broader perspective, I find that my values remain pretty constant whilst my aims keep moving on.

Having a mentor who keeps challenging me and encourages me to grow my vision has been a big influence on my practice, but also on how I support and work with others.

It has, over time, helped me to build a diverse and supportive network, find like minded people to work with, identify role models to be inspired by and to invest time and energy into building relationships that have enabled me to accomplish far more than I could otherwise have.

This is the end of the first part of our story. In the next post we will be looking at how we created a ‘blended’ approach to mentoring and our experience of mentoring when things are going well.