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Khalid Aziz

Aziz Corporate


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Mentoring the C-suite: filling the gaps left by non-executive directors

Better support is needed for those at the top of organisations.

Mark Zuckerberg had Steve Jobs, Bill Gates had Warren Buffet, Sheryl Sandberg had Larry Summers. All these individuals are known for their outstanding abilities in business, but they didn’t get there alone. How much of their success can be attributed to having had the guidance of an outstanding mentor, a confidante with whom they could share their challenges and ideas?

Of all the L&D interventions available, mentoring is perhaps the most misunderstood, especially in relation to coaching. These two personal developmental approaches are highly complementary but unlike coaching, which focuses on behaviours and the development of soft skills using structured models, mentoring is less rigid and intended to address particular business or technical challenges.

A good mentor enables their mentee to go beyond their ‘best self’ - what they are capable of today, to visualise and ultimately realise their ‘ideal self’ - who they ultimately want to become. 

This distinction is not always as black and white, but it is fair to say that mentoring typically focuses on actually ‘doing the do’ - giving an individual specific direction and technical expertise. A mentor brings their professional experience into the relationship in more of an advisory capacity, to support skills and knowledge development in a particular field.

Newly appointed managers are often given a mentor to help them navigate their organisation and culture – ‘old hands’ who ‘know the ropes’. Or a young rising star might reverse mentor an ‘old fogey’ in their organisation, to be reinvigorated by their fresh perspectives and open minds. Both these scenarios involve internal mentoring, which is fine lower down an organisation, but what about mentoring at the senior leadership level? Finding fresh perspectives and open minds, combined with the right level of strategic business expertise, is very difficult to source internally.

Internal versus external mentors

According to Valerie Hughes-Daeth, an external mentor is able to act as a sounding board, bringing more lived experiences of working in different environments and with different cultures, to enable a mentee to develop much broader perspectives and solutions. Compare this with an internal mentor, who will tend to have a narrower and less independent perspective.

Access to this level of ‘know how’ and wisdom is invaluable for senior organisational leaders. C-Suite churn rates have reached their highest levels ever, with average tenures around 5.3 years. CEOs in particular are taking on a highly challenging, stressful and potentially, very lonely role. They don’t have all the answers and need seasoned advice too, ideally from someone unbiased, who has faced similar challenges and who can short-circuit their decision-making process to help avoid potentially disastrous mistakes.

It takes an outsider to spot unhealthy dynamics and realise what the real issues are - the fact that shareholders will reject the strategic plan, or inherent dysfunction among senior leaders.

Many organisations will appoint a non-executive director (NED), or a chairman, to provide a level of internal mentorship to the board. The very benefits that an NED influence brings are ultimately the reason why successful leaders and entrepreneurs are now also turning to highly skilled external mentors. It comes down to familiarity. NEDs and chairmen eventually become too involved with either internal governance or the expectations of shareholders, to be able to offer the same fresh perspectives that a highly experienced outsider can bring. This is where leadership mentoring is highly valuable, helping to avoid what mentor Andrew Baker describes as “the traps that naivety and inexperience bring”.

An external mentor has no existing ties and no conflict of interest. They will work independently and strategically with an individual, helping them to achieve their full potential, first and foremost as an individual and then a business leader.

A good mentor enables their mentee to go beyond their ‘best self’ - what they are capable of today, to visualise and ultimately realise their ‘ideal self’ - who they ultimately want to become. It requires a paradoxical combination of closeness and distance; closeness in the context of working relationship and trust, with distance in terms of objectivity.

All this may sound similar to coaching but being a long-term mentor for someone is very different, because you are helping to shape them and their ambitions through their daily working life. A mentor will help identify issues that might not be apparent - simply because the rest of the leadership team are either part of the problem, or too entrenched with the day to day to realise – and guide them to a solution. It’s a very complementary relationship to existing NED support, which may pre-date an incoming CEO for instance and already extend across an organisation.  

CEO transformation

In a recent assignment, mentor Paul Barry-Walsh outlined how ongoing problems within the board are a frequent challenge for the CEOs he works with. He observes that it takes an outsider to spot unhealthy dynamics and realise what the real issues are - the fact that shareholders will reject the strategic plan, or inherent dysfunction among senior leaders. NEDs find it difficult to be completely impartial. They provide corporate governance and shareholder accountability whereas with the exception of the mentee, an external mentor has no other accountability.

Aziz leadership mentor, Sir Clive Jones expands on this by highlighting that in addition, another key difference between a NED or chairman relationship and an external mentor is the complete absence of boundaries. Whereas the former has set duties within an organisation, mentoring takes place behind closed doors. There are no forbidden areas and since assignments are typically short term, it is possible to give extremely candid and objective advice. He says, the only person who can really hold the CEO to account is the chairman and they may have neither the time or skills to do it, whereas an external mentor, someone who is dispassionate and has been there and got the t-shirt, can really transform them.

Although mentoring involves a commercial relationship, a very important motivation for all mentors is the opportunity to ‘give back’, sharing skills, experiences and life lessons with a new generation of leaders facing unique challenges. The majority of mentors see it as a privilege to work with their mentees, watching them succeed in their chosen paths and transform their organisations.

Interested in this topic? Read Five golden rules for effective mentoring.

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Khalid Aziz


Read more from Khalid Aziz

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