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.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.