Mentoring unpacked III: mentoring through tough times and sharing our reflections
October 16, 2018
This is the third and final part in this series on mentoring. This time, Margaret and I focus on our experience of mentoring through tough times and also reflect on what we have learnt working together over the past six years and how this has changed our professional practice.
The last six years have had many ups and downs. Margaret has been a constant presence in my life and together we have worked through many personal and professional crisis, anything from when I had to take on the responsibility of being a carer for my mother, who has cancer, to problems at work that encompassed everything from finance and governance to management and staffing, the sad passing away of a serving President of the organisation and major restructuring. Being a CEO can feel like every month brings with it a new insurmountable problem, a steep learning curve or frustration.
It’s important, I feel, to acknowledge that there have been tough times and explain how mentoring has helped me through them. For example, when I was new in my role and had very little support or sense of what kind of support I would need or want, having a trusted mentor at my side could feel like a lifeline. Or times when we worked to identify specific issues and worked out how to address them. Making changes was successful at times, but painful, too, when things went wrong. I worked hard to grow my own network and become more resilient. Some things that used to be difficult have become easier as I’ve gained experience and I have learnt how to manage them without Margaret’s support. But even once I needed less practical support day to day, having a mentor continued to be important: it helped me face difficult questions and to be honest with myself. It instilled in me a reflective approach that prompts me to put the good of the organisation before all else, even when it’s hard to do. It seems like an obvious point to make, but I find it helpful as a guiding principle that I keep coming back to.
A key issue now is to make sure that Maren or the organisation isn’t just coasting along or that Maren isn’t getting bored. She is someone who thrives on challenge but appreciates that organisations need periods of consolidation. What is the next step for ALT, what is the next step for her and are they the same or different? Difficult questions but ones we need to come back to again and again.
Over the years, we’ve had so many conversations that I don’t even need to speak with Margaret at times as it’s enough to write and reflect on a situation and I know what she would say or ask me to think about. It’s a bit like the voice of a driving instructor in your head, reminding you to check your blind spots. I maintain a private blog, which has grown to hundreds of entries charting my professional life and that writing forms a cornerstone of my reflective practice. Margaret has helped me devise other strategies, too, to cope with problems and become more resilient – giving me the tools to navigate difficult days.
Yet, even with practical tools and the support of a mentor, there are always some things I am not prepared for, like when a journalist asked me in an interview about education policy why I don’t have children. Or when I didn’t get to speak in a meeting as the Minister leading it didn’t know my name. Or when someone burst into tears in response to something I said. Or when I had to speak at a funeral in my professional capacity. Often, it turned out to be quite a mix of personal and professional factors that made some situations unexpectedly difficult.
From working with Margaret I learnt how important it is to build trust and be able to share the highs and lows of working life with someone – but in a leadership position that can be difficult. Many things are too confidential or too personal or simply too raw to talk about with most people
Margaret adds her perspective, reflecting on a particularly tough conversation:
Probably the most difficult mentoring session we had was when Maren was dealing with a very difficult issue and felt very pissed off with her job. Maren was angry with the situation and the lack of support she was getting at the time. The issue was taking up all her time and energy and stopping her moving the organisation forward as she had planned. It was the only time, I ever saw Maren wanting to give it all up!
This all came up in a phone conversation which was very tricky to handle. More than anything Maren needed a hug but I was 150 miles away. I was really not sure what to do to help. But I can remember feeling that bad myself and looking back I realised that these difficult situations do come to an end. You just have to stick in there as a CEO and realise there is light at the end of the tunnel even with the most difficult people or problems.
So I gave Maren reassurance that her feelings were valid, that she could and would get through the issue and things would get back to normal. I remember walking round and round my sitting room while on the phone, listening and reassuring. And it worked! I was very relieved. Maren went away and sorted the problem brilliantly so she could take forward her plans for ALT.
Even reading this now, years later, I recall that moment, that phone call, as clearly as Margaret does. And yes, a hug would have been good.
But, more importantly, I learnt a lot from getting through that particularly tough spot: I learnt to trust that eventually things do go back to normal, that I am able to get through it and that I was glad indeed that I chose to stick with it.
Having a mentor and working with Margaret has been a formative experience for me. Similarly, Margaret’s approach to being mentor has been informed by our work together. Over time our relationship has changed as our practice has developed.
Is a Mentor a critical friend?
I have heard people say that a mentor is a critical friend but I don’t agree in our case. Maren is more than critical enough in her practice and as a CEO has lots of criticism to deal with. I think I am definitely a friend but not critical at all. Supportive, non judgemental and maybe inquisitive are better words. I am less involved in the day to day so can help Maren step back and see the bigger picture or encourage her to be really creative in finding solutions but my role is not to criticise.
In addition, here are some reflections I want to share:
Being a chief executive is a privilege. No matter how difficult things may be at times, working with Margaret has made me realise again and again that it is a huge privilege to serve my organisation as chief executive. I love what I do and an inspiring mentor who has kept challenging me has helped me do my best for the organisation.
Most of the time, I already know the answer. Often Margaret has made me see things in a new way, and has made me realise that I already know what to do to solve a problem but maybe I haven’t realised it or hadn’t wanted to face it or was afraid to do it.
I choose my own path. Margaret has helped me gain confidence in my own judgement, in my values and myself. Being a chief executive is a lonely path and you need to be able to rely on your own instincts. That’s not to say that listening to or learning from others is not essential, of course it is. But realising my own potential is something I have to do in my own way. It always comes back to asking myself what kind of chief executive I want to be. I choose my own path.
I’m a human being. Be kind to yourself, give yourself a break, reflect on how you feel, look after yourself… I am not very good at those things. A combination of high expectations, a strong work ethic and a love for my work can result in a sincere lack of empathy for myself. Margaret has reminded me again and again to do all those good things that help restore balance, perspective and calm. Over time, I’ve become better at taking into account that I’m a human being with feelings and needs and moods and to afford those around me the same consideration. It still surprises me how much of a difference it makes.
And for all these things as well as everything I haven’t mentioned I am extremely grateful. Thank you, Margaret.
We have written these three posts with the aim to reflect on and share our experiences of working together for the past six years. We have unpacked our mentoring relationship so that you can explore our perspectives and use our insights to inform your own approach to finding, working with or indeed being a mentor.
As you can tell from the narrative we have created, we have enjoyed facing the highs and lows together and we are fortunate to have had much laughter along the way.