As we await a second update of the Rose Review on Female Entrepre-neurship, I thought it would be useful to share how I took on board one of the recommendations in Alison Rose’s original 2019 report. I read it with delight, supporting all of her initiatives but I was moving towards the end of my full-time career, how could I contribute now that I was out of the cut and thrust of business routine? I noted that one initiative of the review was ‘Expanding Mentoring and Networking’ and I realised that I could still give more to help women succeed in business.
In my private sector business career, there was not an established mentoring system in which more experienced men and women were encouraged to mentor others. Looking back, I realise that I did have a mentor in my boyfriend of the time who was already a Corporate Director. He cut out a newspaper advert and encouraged me to apply for my first Director’s role at twice my current salary. I would never have dreamed of making such a jump without his confidence that I could do the job.
Now that I recognise his mentoring role in my career acceleration, I kick myself now, realising that I could have introduced such staff mentoring programmes over the next 30 years when I was the leader. Certainly,
when I joined the not-for-profit sector, we introduced and regularly offered external professional coaching programmes and peer-to-peer learning networks to staff. At Business Link we even introduced an online mentoring programme for SMEs which was ahead of its time.
I wonder if I saw mentoring as second best, more informal, less ‘teaching,’ more ‘listening.’ On request, I did sporadically mentor colleagues in and outside my organisation, but it was on an ad hoc, ‘let’s have a coffee and a chat’ basis rather than planning how mentoring could help us both to develop.
I also wonder if there was an element of embarrassment and imposter syndrome on my part when someone asked me to mentor them. “Why me? I am not qualified, surely there are more knowledgeable people than me? This is not my sector.’’ Of course, the perennial, ‘I don’t have time’ was also a stock answer.
The reality is that these were excuses, not reasons. We all have more time, skills, and knowledge than we think, and most of us can learn to be a good mentor. So, I decided that if I was asked again to mentor a businesswoman that I should take it as a compliment and give it a go.
The first lockdown gave me time to read what I could find on the subject. I did not have to wait long before a former global HR Director approached me to mentor for Brave Starts, a not-for-profit targeted at people wanting to change careers over 50 years of age. Online meetings had become the norm and were ideal for me to talk with clients all over the UK.
Then, a business in my local Chamber led by two women, approached me, saying that they were at a crossroads of growth and needed advice. And a businesswoman who had entered the Reigate & Banstead Borough Council’s wonderful Dragon’s Den, where I have been a judge for seven years, contacted me out of the blue asking for help on an international trade question.
Finally, as lockdown lifted, I spoke at a business conference and was approached by one of the attendees who gave compelling reasons why she would like me to mentor her. How could I refuse?
I had not advertised for any of these approaches and indeed only recently have added volunteer mentoring to my LinkedIn profile although I have enough mentees for the time being with monthly hourly meetings scheduled.
I have been surprised about how much I have learned from my mentees. I have learned to really listen while they offload their problems. Certainly, it has been easier because I know I do not have a deadline to meet in my day job hanging over the conversation. They usually have a planned long list of issues which I tend to shorten to concentrate on one or two subjects during each session so I can reduce the tasks to be achieved before the next meeting.
Often, once they have understood how the challenge is actually an opportunity, they realise that they knew the solution already. They want and appreciate an independent sounding board who throws in a few ideas from their own experience. Everybody’s personal goals in business and life are different and I have learned just how younger generations see things and expect far more diversity, equality, and inclusion than I ever could imagine during my working life.
I have learned about new business sectors, and although some of the techie stuff is beyond me, I can usually apply tried and trusted experience of good management skills.
These relationships can be quite intimate. I always leave time to chat towards the end. Online it is easy to bring in the dog, the baby or even have a coffee together. Soon we can also have face-to-face meetings again although I admit that it is very time convenient to both mentor and mentee to talk online, often at the end of the working day.
I never put myself forward as either knowing all of the answers or indeed any of the answers but approach the question along the lines of ‘what if you tried this’. After 43 years in the private and not-for-profit sector, I have usually come across a similar issue. I also ensure that I provide links to more knowledgeable online sources such as gov.uk which contains a wealth of information which I wish I’d had.
I doubt that my small part in business will leave a legacy, but at least I feel good and hopefully will have some stake in the future shaping tomorrow’s female leaders. Leaders in that gender equal world, free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. #BreaktheBias.