Date posted: 21/03/2017 3 min read

Could a mentor fast track your success?

A mentor can be key to career success, but the mentee must play an active role in their own career development.

In brief

  • Being a mentee is much more than simply receiving wisdom.
  • The best mentors have skills that you can’t read about in a textbook.
  • One in six mentoring pairs fail because core values don’t align.

By Leo D’Angelo Fisher.

Very few aspects of how we live, consume and work have been untouched by digitisation.

When it comes to business, the rule book is in a state of flux as the digital economy demands radical rethinks of how we structure our organisations, conduct our work and service our customers.  So where does that leave one of the oldest sources of influence and guidance in business – the mentor?

The relationship between mentor and mentee (usually) enables young professionals and future leaders to learn from the experience and wisdom of (usually) older peers.

Learn from experience and wisdom

Whatever else may be changing in the digital word, says Peter Wilson, author of Make Mentoring Work, the value of learning from the experience of others has not.

“The way we work has changed dramatically, there’s no doubt about that, but relationships haven’t changed. People are still people, we just operate in a different way,” Wilson says.

Wilson embodies the ideal mentor. As a 35-year career executive, Wilson held leadership roles with Amcor, Energy 21 Group and ANZ Bank. Today, the Melbourne-based company director remains an influential business figure as Chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute and President of the Washington-based World Federation of People Management Associations.

Wilson’s best-selling book, now in its second edition, is testament to the continuing – and growing – role of mentoring in business and the professions.

“The essential value from mentoring comes from the fact that reading and ‘doing’ on the job won’t be enough to equip a modern worker or emerging leader with sufficient knowledge to understand and acquire [necessary] skills and experiences,” he says.

These skills and experiences include:

  • handling complex personalities and human relationships
  • managing stakeholders, power structures and building networks
  • managing uncertainty and ambiguity
  • resolving challenging ethical and moral dilemmas.

Being a mentee is much more than simply receiving wisdom. Wilson says it is vital that mentees are “very focused” on what they want to achieve from a mentoring relationship and “very honest” about whether the relationship is producing the desired outcomes.

Mentors and their mentees should meet every four to six weeks on average, Wilson advises. Scheduling regular meetings, rather than taking an ad hoc approach, is more likely to maintain the frequency and continuity necessary to develop an effective mentoring relationship. While the duration of a mentoring relationship varies, Wilson says 12-18 months is typical.

Mentoring is a collaborative experience

Mentoring, Wilson insists, is a “collaborative learning experience” between mentor and mentee, with a “mutual responsibility to … define and achieve clear and mutually defined work, learning and career goals”.

The characteristics of a successful mentor include “significant” relevant experience, wisdom, credibility, patience and the ability to communicate directly and clearly. In a successful mentoring relationship mentees are expected to:

  • initiate and sustain productive relationships with their mentor
  • develop skills and approaches to deal with the senior echelons of complex organisations
  • accelerate their personal change and growth expectations
  • identify professional growth and development areas relevant to their career path
  • set and realise new goals, strategies and processes.

“Mentees must take proactive responsibility for their own career development,” Wilson says, and he stresses the value of proactively searching for appropriate mentors.

“Mentees must take proactive responsibility for their own career development.”
Peter Wilson, author of Make Mentoring Work.

Helen Silver, Chief General Manager of Workers Compensation at insurer Allianz Australia is a strong believer in the role of mentoring. Silver says the best mentors have leadership experience and skills “that you can’t read about in a textbook”.

“They all have great insights into complex problems and what’s inherently right or wrong in any issue you are likely to encounter,” she says.

Silver’s advice when choosing a mentor is to think deliberately about your career. She advises people to conceptualise where they want to be in the short and medium term, identify the skills and experience needed to achieve career goals, and not to be afraid to seek out mentors with the experience they can benefit from.

Wilson agrees that having identified a potential mentor, mentees must actively pursue their choice. In most cases, he adds, one only has to ask.

“I’m amazed by the benevolent spirit of senior leaders in Australian government and business. Don’t be intimidated if you see someone you can learn from. Ask, and almost certainly you will get a ‘yes’,” he explains.

“These are people who have achieved [success as leaders] and they want to give back. Usually they’re just waiting to be asked.”

A critical part of starting a mentoring relationship is the first few meetings between prospective mentor and mentee to test compatibility. One in six mentoring pairs fail, according to Wilson, because of “poor values alignment and cultural fit”.

In the first meeting, mentor and mentee should have similar objectives:

  • get to know each other, including home lives and family backgrounds
  • establish a hallmark of candour, openness and compatible value sets
  • set a challenging professional standard for future discussions
  • openly question and probe whether the right chemistry is being established.

“Once the right chemistry is established for ongoing discussions after the first few meetings, the mentoring pair should also set clear objectives or goals for the relationship,” Wilson says.

“The ultimate onus for initiating and concluding this really lies with the mentee as the agreement is primarily to assist that person’s career development.”

Mentoring support

See the Member Services section of the Chartered Accountants ANZ website for mentoring support.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a journalist, writer and commentator.

This article was first published in the Feb/Mar 2017 issue of Acuity magazine.