All great leaders have mentors, and also mentor others

Find out why even the most successful leaders do not rely solely on their own wisdom.

Steve Jobs had Bill Campbell, Mark Zuckerberg had Steve Jobs, Bill Gates had Warren Buffett. The superstars of business and finance all had mentors that they turned to, and often credit this as a key element of their success. But what is the point of mentoring, and how do you make the most of it?

Dave Colley is a CFA, former audit accountant, turned corporate consultant, and business coach. “There are three broad buckets of mentoring,” Dave explains. “Personal coaching, career-based, and leadership-based. At the executive level, we tend to look at the latter,” he says.

He has had a few great mentors during his career and now works with teams and individuals (locally and abroad) as a mentor and coach. “Mentoring is about giving yourself the space to take a step back, to look away from the firefighting of your day-to-day, and ask yourself what steps you need to take in terms of your longer-term trajectory.”

“You get to a point when you're working, where it is so busy and so much is happening, that you can’t see the wood for the trees. The analogy we use in consulting is that this function would be like someone taking your watch and telling you the time.”

Dave advocates for regular check-ins, one to two months apart for senior staff, and more regularly for teams or junior employees, and is a fan of the “Socratic method” – modelled on Socrates who used questioning to guide his apprentices through a logical analysis of their own assumptions.

The reflexive nature of this is paramount, Dave argues. “You need the individual to come to the conclusion themselves. I could tell them what to do, and this advice may be good or bad, but they won’t buy into it and they won't feel ownership of it unless they get there themselves.”

Mentoring has gone formal

Dean Naidoo is the HR people leader for Aurecon Africa. As a human resources professional, Dean is involved in overseeing the mentorship programme of the company, but he still turns to his own mentors often for guidance. He has a group of people that he would call mentors, relationships forged out of connections he has made throughout his career.

“One of my first mentors was the woman who initially hired me. She gave me my first opportunity and my first shot in HR,” he says. “Over the years, we've built up a really good professional working relationship. She remains one of my mentors and is someone whose opinion I really value. She is a great sounding board for ideas.

Dean’s mentors, he explains, have helped him directly and indirectly, from understanding the business he was in, to develop as an individual. As a result, he has been a keen supporter of mentorship programmes at the companies he has worked for.

What kind of issues would he take to his own mentors? “Where there is debate around strategic or ethical issues if I have a differing viewpoint. In my opinion, it is best to have more than one mentor, and ideally, someone who has broad business experience, and a commercial point of view.”

Real and imagined

In an ideal world, you stumble upon your mentor easily and enjoy fruits of the relationship. But it may not be that simple. While you’re looking for the right fit, Dave recommends finding a “digital mentor” by identifying someone whose outlook is a good fit. “Thanks to the internet, we have access to the greatest minds. We can hear them through podcasts, audiobooks, or experience them by reading about them. What were their ideas and how did they think?”

This tactic is not new, Dave says. “Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, used to hold ‘council’ in his mind. He would ‘invite’ figures like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill to debate an issue with him, and he would imagine the discussion with them, and envisage how they would respond.”

But the first prize is still a real person. “A physical mentor gives you a level of accountability, of course,” he adds.

A two-way street

Dean describes Aurecon’s mentor programme – called Mentoring for Success – as “really strong, and progressive” and something that the company actively invests in. “It is something that we have found critical from a skills development and staff retention perspective,” he adds. “As head of HR here at Aurecon, I am doing my part to ensure that mentorship becomes part of the fabric of the business.”

From new graduates entering the business to the experienced professionals across global operations, everyone is encouraged to take part. People are given the option to identify their own mentor, via a portal on the company website, or request to be paired with one. Staff are given questions to answer – detailing their areas of interest, their aspirations, and so on – and this is communicated to the prospective mentor.

After an initial meeting to test for “compatibility”, the pair sign an agreement for 12 months. Furthermore, every line manager goes through the mentorship training programme, so if they are called upon to mentor, they are acutely aware of what is expected. Within Aurecon, Dean says, the view is that mentoring is a partnership – aimed not just at developing the mentee, but at developing the mentor as well. 

“We have expectations of our mentors, to share their wisdom, their broader business knowledge, and life experience. But at the same time, ‘mentees’ must drive their personal growth and development, set specific goals for themselves,” Dean says. “We stress to our mentees that they must have some skin in the game. At the end of the day, it’s not just the mentor ‘pouring’ into you; it’s about you adding value too.”

Where mentoring fails

Of course, even best-laid plans sometimes fail. When a mentor relation breaks down, our experts agree that it is best to move swiftly along. “I’ve had reason to part ways from mentors on two occasions,” says Dean. “My season had come and gone with that person. Mentorship can go on for many years or just a few months, and one needs to be mature and humble enough to determine at what point it becomes necessary to part ways as friends, instead of carrying on with a mentor relationship.”

Another reason to abandon (mentor)ship, according to Dave, is if you are looking for a mentor to solve your problems. “To make the most of it, you need to be prepared in certain ways. Firstly,  you can’t see yourself as a victim of circumstances; you have to be a creator of circumstances.”

Practically speaking, what does this mean? “If you feel you can't get promoted because there isn't an opportunity above you, you're probably thinking too direct,” says Dave. “People move, reorganisations happens all the time. You need to develop the right skill set so you are ready for a move when the opportunity arises. A mentor can't do that for you. They can point out where you should focus, and help you sort through it, but as long as you think it is someone else's issue (“it is the company that needs to promote me), that's where mentoring will fail.”

Top of your game

At the executive level, there is still definitely a need for mentoring, but it is often a less formal relationship. At Aurecon, for example, Dean says pairing the C-suite with mentors isn’t something HR would get involved in. 

“I am comfortable with knowing that the CEO, MD or COO has a mentor, often outside of the firm.” To his mind, the modelling power of that is significant as it sends a clear message to the rest of the organisations that “even” the top brass need someone from time to time.

Dave also encourages executives at the top level to take the chance to mentor someone else. “So many people focus on finding their own mentor, without realising that you're actually a role model or mentor for other people, and the behaviour that you model is being seen by other people.”

It’s not just a matter of paying it forward, it’s strategic too. “One of the best ways for you as an executive to develop, is to help others,” says Dave. “When you’re asking how you can step up to mentoring others, it forces you to reflect on how your journey has brought you here and how you're going to go further along the way.”

The golden key, but you must turn it

Mentoring must be active, mutually beneficial, and goal orientated. “Mentoring is similar to networking in a way,” says Dave. “Everyone talks about it like it’s the golden key, or that it will solve all your problems, but it is only facilitation.”

“I believe everyone needs mentoring, but in different ways at different times. You can't fix everything at once, but you can tackle one or two ‘dominoes’ (in the form of skills gaps, or leadership style, or productivity sticking points) that will have the biggest effect.”