How to tell if you need a Mentor?

people management Nov 25, 2021
mentorship for growth - A sounding board nobody can do without!

People often assume that leaders automatically come up with the right answers because of the position they hold. The thought is that “they wouldn’t be leaders if they didn’t come up with the right solutions most of the time.”
One would like to think so, but the reality is different.

The leader of a business or organisation on Monday morning, may have ‘only’ been an executive last Friday. On Friday, they were good, perhaps very good, but not perfect. How did they become perfect over the two days between subordinate and boss roles? Leadership is as much about learning, evolution and personal growth as it is about the innate skills of leadership.

The reality is, they didn’t. One of the ways that the gaps in skill, experience or world-view can be filled is by using a suitable mentor to assist the leader contemplate and make key decisions. A mentor should bring experience, skill, independence and confidentiality to your aid – essentially having another brain to draw on to help you contemplate the issues you are confronting. Mentors provide a way of having someone to talk to that isn’t compromised by the self-serving dynamics of the organisation – either ‘up’ to the board or ‘down’ the hierarchy.
Leaving aside the situation where the Chairman of the Board tells you that you need a mentor, how does an experienced or new CEO or very senior executive tell that they need a mentor for themselves?

Here’s a checklist that may help.
1. New or unexperienced issues
If you face a range of issues that you have not faced before (in a significant way), then relying on your own judgement may not serve you well. Having someone who has experienced the issue in their past can surface options and give you an understanding of them. Some of the issue categories that may require you to reach out might include HR and IR matters, Public Relations, stakeholder issues, compliance requirements, board relations, M&A threats and opportunities, divestitures, legal threats and actions, significant competitor and substitute activity, product malfunctions and recalls, and so on. Having one of these major events in one’s professional life is often enough. But reacting poorly to any of these leaves a permanent impact on one’s psyche and potentially a black mark on one’s CV.
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Am I having difficulty with issues I don’t have much experience with?”
2. New skills
You have been promoted from the head of a function of the organisation to its CEO. You certainly have the skills to manage as head of the function, but the skills required in CEOship are not the same as that of the functional head. For example, as CEO, you need “upward” and “outward” skills such as stakeholder management, shareholder relations, PR, compliance, legal, and so on that played little to no role when you were head of the function but are critical in your new role as CEO. Where do you get these additional skills that you need from the very first day of your new appointment?
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I need skills I don’t have or that aren’t sufficiently developed?”
3. New industry
You have been head-hunted into a new organisation in a different industry. Although you know a fair bit about the new context, you don’t know it well enough to navigate effectively through the relationships, dynamic, government and international complexities that characterise your new environment. How do you ramp-up quickly and effectively without making very significant, public and costly errors?
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I know my new environment well enough to avoid all major errors?”
4. New markets
Your organisation has chosen to enter a new market. Although the research validates your decision, the new market has significant impacts on product choice, channel choice, support strategy, communications, HR selection, system requirements, and organisation structure. You and your staff do not have the skills and experience to navigate in this new market with confidence. How do you manage the risk of entering this new market?
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I know enough about my new market to avoid all major errors and manage all risks?”
5. New position in the value chain
The organisation has traditionally been at one end of its industry’s value chain and has now decided to change that position or adopt another position as well. For example, it was originally a miner, and has now chosen to enter the processing and manufacturing space. Another example might be a fabric manufacturer that has chosen to become a clothing manufacturer, distributor or even retailer.
These sorts of decisions have enormous impacts on the organisation. Getting it right is difficult for even the most effective leaders. Getting it wrong (or only partially right) is the common experience.
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I know my new environment well enough to avoid all major errors?”
6. Right brain versus left brain
If you are the CEO of an engineering company, are you having trouble getting your marketers to think the way you do? If you are the head of a design house, are you having issues with your accountant?
Do you know whether you are right or left-brain dominant? If you have preference for detail, predictability, and insist on “evidence”, then you’re probably have a left-brain preference. If you see the big picture, don’t like being consumed by detail, and can handle ambiguity without stress, then you probably have a right-brain preference.
If you’re having trouble communicating with people who appear to have the opposite brain preference, then you may require help in understanding how to do it.
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I have an issue in communicating with some of my staff – particularly those having opposite brain symptoms?”
7. New stakeholders
The government has recently introduced regulation or legislation that now impacts your organisation when it was never previously involved. How do you adapt your organisation to cope with the new environment? How do you now manage relationships with the government?
It appears that shareholder activists have entered your organisation’s share registry. What do you do now?
In all the years that my organisation has existed, it has never had industrial relations issues. My staff have now appointed a Union representative and we have been threatened by the Union with a strike if we don’t agree to their claims. How do I handle this with none of my HR staff having IR experience?
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I have an issue with dealing with certain stakeholders?”
8. Gender and cultural background
You are of a gender and/or cultural background that is the significant minority in your organisation. How do you know how to play the game so that you are treated on your merits and on your performance?
How do you engender respect for your contribution and not your differences?
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I have an issue with bias, and non-merit-based judgement within the organisation?”
9. Work / life balance
Your career is booming. You are making great strides in solving organisational problems, capturing and converting opportunities and binding the organisation together. You have consistently walked-the-talk and staff love and respect you. But you have consistently been working 70 hours every week. Staff are amazed at your energy but your family is distressed. They haven’t seen you for a whole weekend for two years, and when you’re home, you are on the phone, SMS or laptop. Work is great – private life is lousy and the children are suffering.
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I have an issue with getting some balance between my work and my family?”
10. Getting it done
You have such a large and critical “To Do” list, that you struggle to get through it efficiently and effectively. In fact, you don’t and the entire organisation knows it. You’re too scared to delegate because you don’t trust the skills and experience of those that report to you. How do you get on top of it all? How do you match ‘effort’ with ‘effectiveness’?
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I have an issue with managing my workload?”
11. Change
Everything is changing. Everything is dynamic. You know what needs to be done and have initiated multiple change initiatives to make it all happen. The problem is that even a small change impacts most parts of the organisation and with multiple projects, it’s a complex mess of interdependent and conflicting forces. You wish it hadn’t started and you could change it back to the way it was – but that’ll never happen.
Therefore, the question to ask yourself is, “Do I have an issue with managing change in the organisation so that it is less painful and much more effective?”

If you have answered any of these questions acknowledging a limitation and therefore, a need, then you probably need an effective Mentor.

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