Why you need a mentor

If you make decisions in isolation there is every chance you will make the wrong call.

This year’s feast of sport got me thinking about mentoring. Alex Ferguson has always done remarkably well pairing up young starlets with older, more seasoned professionals. You can see in the rowing how important Steve Redgrave has been to the younger members of the GB team over the years. And so on and so on. In each instance, the coaches/managers have seen how valuable it is to provide their growing talent with a voice of reason. Someone who can be respected and trusted to give advice and counsel and who provides a role model.

Given how obvious this has become in a sporting context, I have always found it strange that so few people in business do the same thing. I believe it’s part of my role to provide that service for people I know. ICAEW also recognises the value of mentoring and its F-ten network is a good example of how it can work. In an ideal world you have a number of people around you who can give you a mix of opinion to help you make the right decision.

When you are building your career, you find yourselves at a crossroads for much of the time. Each decision can have a substantial impact on the direction and speed of travel. If you make decisions in isolation there is every chance you will make the wrong call. But if you make those decisions based on the advice and counsel of others who have been at those crossroads before, you improve the chances of making the right call.

There is little more instructive than discussing how careers have been built with the people who have already built them. To hear about the choices they had to make and the consequences of those choices. To find out what different businesses have expected from the function and how you use your experience to your advantage.

Equally, you can’t ignore the network that develops as you rise up through the ranks in your chosen profession. And this network checks in with each other regularly, looking for opportunities that could help the people they are supporting.

Most important, it gives you an opportunity to hear the old war stories and to learn from them. One of the reasons people study history is to learn from the past and not repeat mistakes in the future. Your mentors can help with that tremendously.

Having, I hope, convinced you of the value of these mentors let me try and help you identify who yours should be and how you can persuade them to act as a mentor on your behalf.

In short, the sorts of people you want to turn to as a mentor should be seasoned, successful, helpful specialists in your field – former CFOs, former bosses, audit chairs, audit partners, headhunters and colleagues who have jumped a couple of levels past you.

All of these are highly credible potential mentors. They should be people you trust well enough to ask the most stupid question and whom you know will advise you impartially and evenly.

As to how you find these people, all you have to do is ask. Most of them will have benefited from mentors themselves and, as the sports world has clearly demonstrated, the people who have gained from this in the past tend to be the ones who will give in the future.

And in my own experience, there are far more people than you might expect who really enjoy helping ambitious talent develop its true potential.

Mark Freebairn is partner at Odgers Berndtson

This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.