When the Covid-19 pandemic struck I wanted to do something positive and signed up for Next-Up's 500 mentors campaign, supported by Leeds City Council.
Chatting to the Next-Up team, they asked if I would share my tips and insights about mentoring. Here I cover some thoughts about mentoring from the classics, some of the nightmares I have been through in my career – which I think make us better mentors if we are honest about these – and then my views on how to get the best from mentoring relationships..
For starters if I was asked to choose a character from history as my ideal mentor, Socrates would have to be on my shortlist.
Aside from being one of the founders of Western philosophy, Socrates was mentor to Plato and Xenophon.
Xenophon became the historian and genius military commander who first used flanking manoeuvres and feints in battle. Meanwhile Plato went on to lay the foundations for Western political philosophy and religious thought, including Christianity.
Plato also mentored Aristotle, who in turn mentored Alexander the Great, one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.
Like wow, Socrates. That’s some CV. What a legacy.
“I know that I know nothing”
When asked to share his most valuable nugget of wisdom, Socrates reputedly answered with the words “I know that I know nothing”.
If I was advising Socrates on his market positioning at the time (!), I’m not sure I’d have recommended he use that as a differentiator for his mentoring services. Genuine modesty is an attractive quality, but “Chose me as your mentor – I know nothing!” isn’t a great pitch.
The point Socrates was making is an important one for mentors. In any debate, or in any mentoring discussion, our starting point should be to assume that we know nothing about the issue our mentee has raised.
Only when we have established what our mentee already knows and feels about the issue in question can we draw on our experience to help them identify what else is needed for them to make an informed decision, and – if needed – advise on the best way to fill in the gaps.
Helping our mentees develop the ability to work out what they do and don’t know is one of the most valuable skills a mentor can bring to the relationship.
Failures as a source of great knowledge
Just as it’s not the norm to talk about how little we know, it’s not very common to talk about our failures. But our failures often provide our most valuable lessons.
And being honest about our mistakes is an important part of personal and professional development.
As a marketer, my approach to my work has always been market-led. My advice has centred around understanding of the perception and needs of the market, and building businesses around meeting the needs of the market better than the competition.
I’ve not always got it right, however, and I often quote the following experience as one of my best lessons.
Some time ago I was working with a start-up software company based in Silicon Valley. We had a great product, market traction, good margins, and a compelling vision for growth.
We needed cash to scale the business quickly, so we spent a couple of years pitching to venture capitalists for an eight-figure investment to ramp up our growth to light speed.
But we failed. Not because of the product, which was (and still is) great, but because the market leader was Microsoft, and none of the VCs were willing to invest in competing head-to-head with Microsoft.
So we wasted valuable time and resources pitching for funds, whilst continuing to invest in the product because we still believed in it – and our clients loved it. We continued to grow our market share until Microsoft started to give their product away for free, as the VCs predicted.
In hindsight (isn’t it always easier in hindsight!), we should have taken the feedback on board at a much earlier stage, when we still had the resources to pivot in a different direction. Whilst we still made money, we could have made much more.
Instead we allowed our own hubris to blind our perception of reality: we listened to the feedback from clients because it reinforced our internal narrative, but ignored the feedback from the VCs because it was uncomfortable for us to hear.
Mapping values between mentor and mentee
Part of the role of a mentor is to help the mentee explore alternative views and opinions; to develop a rounder understanding of the issue, thereby helping them to arrive at a good decision.
It’s also to provide an ethical barometer. To paraphrase Aristotle, a mentor should aim to “hold a mirror up; through that mirror they can see themselves other in ways that would not otherwise be accessible to them, and it is this mirroring that helps them improve themselves as a person.”
In that context ‘different’ is good. It makes sense for mentees to choose a mentor with a different worldview, someone with an approach to problem-solving that is different to their own.
However, honesty, as Socrates implied, is a value that mentors should aim to both display and encourage in their mentees.
This applies to being honest about our personal values, which isn’t always easy to do. Mentor and mentee don’t always need to hold the same values, and sometimes it is an advantage if they don’t, but they need to be honest about what they want to get from the relationship.
Getting the right balance
Getting the right balance of values between mentor and mentee starts with mapping the needs of the mentee with the skills, experience and values of the mentor.
Provided the skills and experience are a good fit, differences between values and ethics can be positive, provided both parties are honest about their own values and what they want to get from the relationship.
Being clear about own values, strengths and weaknesses is not easy. And sometimes it requires a good mentor to help develop that clarity.
As Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Interested in the link between Greek philosophers and mentoring? Take a look at this list of quotes from Aristotle for starters. During this time of the corona virus, I particularly like “It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”