Communicating as a Leader

The Lonely Leader

Alan Cutler asked:


By Alan Cutler, Leadership Writer, Speaker and Mentor

John had started small but, over the years, he had built his business up, and he now employs over 20 staff. It had taken hard work, long hours (and an understanding family). Whilst, in the early days, he knew all his staff personally and was, himself, involved in front-line operations, these days his role is more detached: he leads from a distance. Yet, with a bigger operation and more staff come more problems. It would not be so bad if he worked for a large company – he would have company policies and a line manager to fall back on, but he is still, essentially, a one-man-band. Things began to get on top of him and the problems seemed to be getting bigger and bigger. He had no-one to turn to and no time to stand back and actually think about his business and where it was going. He felt isolated and alone and was beginning to lose the confidence and self-belief he certainly had when he was building up his business. And then he decided to find someone who could help him through his current malaise and guide him to take his business forward – a mentor.

Managers today are working increasingly longer hours and, as a consequence, have less time for personal reflection; either on work or personal-related issues. Hence, an increasing number are realising the benefits of having someone who they spend time with to discuss issues and to benefit from experienced, specialist advice and guidance. In John’s case, being self-employed, his mentor, albeit a hospitality professional, had no connection with his catering business. Yet many organisations, in all sectors, are now setting up formal mentoring arrangements whereby junior managers can call upon the guidance of more experienced colleagues from within their company.

Mentors are not consultants employed to resolve specific issues, nor are they coaches whose role is to encourage their client to set and achieve personal goals. A mentor will act as a sounding board for their mentee and will walk alongside him or her to encourage career and personal development. The mentor’s role is to support and develop; to stimulate and challenge. Having a mentor can help people who hold a leadership position develop their leadership skills for their own benefit, as well as for their teams and, hence, their organisation. Many people have found that the guidance they have received from a mentor has given them greater confidence in their jobs which has made a significant impact on their career prospects.

Mentoring has been described as:

‘Off-line help from one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work and thinking’

Megginson and Clutterbuck 1995

‘Off-line’ in this definition refers to a relationship that is not with one’s line manager. Having someone outside one’s chain of command is seen as being potentially more beneficial, as it reduces the risk of conflict and lack of open discussion.

A mentor:mentee relationship should be seen as an on-going, medium-to-long term arrangement if it is to be of real benefit. It takes time for each party to get to know the other and, in particular, for the mentee to gain the necessary confidence to enter open, often personal, discussions. Confidentiality is the bedrock of a productive relationship, with the mentor responding to the direction set by the mentee. Indeed, the junior partner should be encouraged and empowered to take increasing responsibility for the pace and direction the continuing discussions take, although the mentor should also challenge and coax the mentee to identify problem areas.

An open, positive mentoring relationship offers many potential benefits, including:

 addressing and resolving specific situations associated with the mentee’s role

 building more constructive relationships within the workplace

 clarifying and prioritising work and personal choices

 gaining greater confidence and a feeling of self-worth

 improved career development potential

 developing better leadership skills founded upon greater confidence in the authority that accompanies a leader’s role

An example of how off-line mentoring can be of benefit to managers in large organisations was Mary (like John in the previous example, not her real name), who worked for an international company. She had a boss who she felt displayed generally poor leadership skills, hence for whom she had little respect. Their working relationship was generally poor, although not totally destructive. Mary was offered the services of a mentor within the company, who was a senior manager from another department. After six months of working with her mentor, Mary had been encouraged to review her relationship with her boss and had come to accept that, notwithstanding his flaws, she had much to learn from him. By subsequently seeking to build bridges with him they ended up enjoying a much more constructive, if still not perfect, working relationship. Mary believed that it was having someone who understood her position, and with whom she could discuss her concerns in confidence, that enabled her to review this issue in a broader perspective and to focus on finding an acceptable solution.

It is obvious that if a mentoring relationship is to bear fruit, the mentee must be, or become, totally at ease with the advisor. There must be a chemistry between them whereby the mentee has total confidence in the mentor; whilst the mentor feels able to advise, direct, challenge and, if need be, constructively criticise the junior partner in the relationship. The ideal mentor should:

 have appropriate background knowledge – this may not necessarily be sector-specific, but must include a good level of managerial and leadership experience

 be able to build rapport and develop relationships, based upon mutual respect

 have a record of developing and motivating others

 be enthusiastic and interested in the mentee’s role

 be a good communicator; not least a good listener

 not be directly related to the mentee’s current position or chain of command.

A supportive mentor can have a very uplifting effect on a manager who has the ability but, for whatever reason, needs the encouragement and guidance from someone who shows faith in him or her, as evidenced from this comment:

“I was rather under-confident when I took up my current post. I was newly divorced and had been out of the top flight for a period of time. I was totally intimidated by the company ethos. My mentor encouraged me to perform beyond my job description. She would question my performance, explain my mistakes and advise me how to perform better. Above all, she gave me confidence. She would say “I know you have the ability to do it and I know that you will do it”. Her encouragement and faith in me was a great support and incentive”

Most mentoring relationships include regular, timetabled meetings, ideally away from the mentee’s direct work environment. The initial meeting(s) are used to share personal information; address any concerns about the forthcoming relationship; and identify priorities and expectations held by both parties. Subsequent meetings, possibly held every month or so, will become more focussed upon specific issues as levels of confidence are built.

A fairly recent development, however, has been the increasing practice of e-mentoring, whereby meetings are largely, or entirely, replaced by communications over the internet. Whilst it may be more difficult to develop deeper relationships; and reactions and interpretations cannot be influenced by reading body language or verbal nuances, there are some positive benefits to e-mentoring, not least in combating problems of distance and international ti
me zones. Moreover, the mentor can spend longer considering issues an
d offering advice, whilst the mentee also has more time to reflect on exchanges. Issues are addressed more promptly than by awaiting a monthly meeting, whilst discussions can be spread over several days rather than being confined within, say, a two-hour meeting. Perhaps, however, the best mentoring arrangement allows for a combination of face-to-face contact and telephone/email communications.

So, what can mentoring offer The Lonely Leader? The report following a mentoring programme specifically for women in leadership positions found that, as a result of the programme:

• 90% of mentees were more conscious of their own values • 84% felt more secure in their leadership roles • 82% believed that the programme had had a positive effect on their career development • 80% reported that they had developed personally

Yet, how often do leaders allocate substantial resources towards the training of their staff, whilst giving scant consideration to their own development needs? A senior position within any organisation can, indeed, be a lonely and, on some occasions, a cold place. You may have nobody to share concerns with or bounce ideas off; or you may feel that seeking guidance from your manager may be interpreted as a weakness. But you do not have to be a Billy No Mates – consider the benefits of having a mentor!


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