Careers in change and transformation can be challenging and even a little lonely at times, which is why working with a good mentor can be so transformative. But how to decide who to choose? As a mentor myself, I get asked about this a lot, so have narrowed down the top 10 traits I think are key to look for in a mentor. Take a look and let me know if I’ve missed anything.
I didn't used to be authentic; I used to be all about what I thought people wanted from me and wearing different masks to suit them. But during my career I’ve come to understand how trust-building it is to be completely yourself. Now what you see is what you get with me.
This is really important when it comes to choosing a mentor. When you’re reading posts or emails from someone you’re considering working with to develop your career, you need to connect with them and know you can trust them to guide you in the best possible way.
What I put out there is really, authentically me, because I’m only interested in working with people who are genuinely attracted to my point of view and ways of working. As a mentor, it doesn't matter how many sessions I have with a mentee, on the first session or the 21st, it's the same me.
If you'd asked me 20 years ago what I wanted to do with my career, I would have told you that I wanted to mend broken companies.
There wasn't a job that allowed me to do that (certainly not one I was qualified to do) so, like many people, I started my career temping. Working in a procurement department, I found I was a natural fit for the commercial and contractual management aspects of the job.
Since then I’ve worked in so many different types of project and programme manager roles, and loved learning how projects best function. Looking back, these jobs were the fundamental building blocks of my career in change and transformation and how the Change Maker programme https://app.oakwoodmanagementconsulting.com/the-change-maker-programme came to exist.
Choosing a mentor with an eclectic background, ranging from working in private and public sector, from local government to health care, and who has experience of global perspectives, means you’ll benefit from a diversity of experience. Make sure you do your homework and take a close look at your potential mentor’s CV.
Mentors can be serious and intimidating people. I remember when I was trying to ask one of my early mentors, who was very senior, to be my mentor. I spent a week rehearsing what I was going to say, practising it in front of the mirror and getting very nervous about it. And at the end of a long week of trying to build up the courage to ask this impressive man to mentor me, I thought, “okay, if I don't do it now, I will absolutely never do it”. Just as I was about to leave, I turned around, walked into his office and delivered my little speech. He said yes instantly. What was easy for him had been terrifying for me. And, although I learned a huge amount from him, every session felt like there was the potential of being judged because he was so senior.
I’m senior myself now, having had many successes throughout my career, but I don't take that intimidating approach to mentoring. I come at mentoring in a very nonjudgmental and lighthearted way. Think about how you want to feel in your mentoring sessions and choose a mentor who is aligned with you.
A good mentor will help you learn from your successes as well as your mistakes.
Sometimes we move over success too early and don't work out why it was truly successful. And there's a risk that we don't learn enough to be able to implement that success again.
A good mentor knows it's important to give small changes a try quickly to see if they work and then bring the learning back so tweaks can be made.
“One of the best ways to implement change is to be playful about it”
As a mentor, I’m unusual in that I’m comfortable with an instinct based, experiential approach. Ask yourself, do you want a mentor who plays it safe, or who encourages play?
By creative, I don't mean works of art, but creative problem solving. A mentor should be able to help you find a possible solution for any problem. Sometimes it takes experimentation and a learning approach, and sometimes you come up with ideas that sound as if they might work, but actually don't at all - all of it should be allowed inside the mentoring relationship.
Innovation and creativity is about finding different options for how to solve problems. My mentees benefit from my free-flowing and collaborative approach to problem-solving.
Consider your own approach to problem-solving and how a mentor could help you create new and innovative ideas.
I love a good theory and think a lot of wonderful things are created by academics looking for the reasons behind things. However, we need to take those theories and make them practical in order for them to work. I've seen a lot of people take very academic positions and try and apply them into change projects without success.
You have to look and ask:
I believe it’s more useful to work with a mentor who isn’t going to tell you about the theory behind change, but is going to talk about the practical steps you can take to succeed.
I've been lucky enough to have some really good mentors but, on occasion, being mentored felt more like being lectured at. As a mentee, it can feel like your mentor has a lot to tell you and your role is to observe and to be a sponge for all that knowledge. That is not my approach.
I like to be collaborative; if you have a problem that you're bringing to a mentoring session with me, then it's not going to be about me giving you my answer to the problem, but rather about us working together to solve it. Because you know the unique circumstances of your project, the people involved, plus what is likely to work and what potentially might not work so well.
“I believe mentoring works best as a collaborative experience of equals bouncing ideas and practical solutions off each other.”
It’s so important to choose a mentor who is enthusiastic about change and will get you excited about taking strides forward in your career.
The thing people who have worked with me comment on more than anything else is my enthusiasm for change. I care about getting the best result for the people involved and the company who have definite things they need to achieve. Do you need a mentor who can champion your ideas, get you excited about a difficult change project and encourage you to think big?
“Good mentoring, like good change, is all about relationships.”
And not just the relationship between mentor and mentee, but the entire professional network.
As a mentor, if there are things where neither of us have the answers, then I have the relationships to reach out into my network and find the answers for you. You don’t just get me as your mentor, you also get access to a much wider network of opinions and influences in the change and transformation world.
Relationships are fundamental to the way I mentor. Because if you are mentored by me, even if for two or three sessions, we’ll have a relationship forever. You can reconnect and ask me questions years afterwards and I’ll be happy to help because, for me, it's all about deepening these connections.
For change to work, we have to believe it’s possible. It just requires us to approach it in the right way. It requires us to be very curious about how and be open to working collaboratively with people.
I believe any change is possible - from global changes we need to make like climate change, the global food crisis or driving ethical behaviour into large corporates - I believe all of it is doable.
But we have to be the people to make the change. We have to believe it’s possible and accept that giant change comes slowly. That's true in any company, local government, or organisation.
Don’t settle for working with a mentor who will (consciously or subconsciously) dampen your dreams, or be downtrodden by the demands of this complicated industry.
The way I approach mentoring is the same way I approach all of change: Anything is possible.
That’s my take on the traits of a great mentor based on my 16+ years in the industry. This is all my own opinion of course, so let me know in the comments - what am I missing?
If you’re an ambitious change and transformation pro who is serious about taking your career to the next level, and like my approach, I’m currently taking applications for 121 mentoring. Take a look at the Change Maker programme for more info about to work with me
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