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31 August 2012

Why you need a mentor

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

By mark freebairn

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.

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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.