Why we all need support - especially CEOs

This month I’m returning to a subject that is as important as it gets for the ongoing welfare of non-profit organisations – how the leaders within this very varied sector are able to flourish as individuals while remaining in charge of the destiny of their organisations. 

It is almost impossible to pick up an article or book about successful leaders and entrepreneurs these days without finding a story or quote about how that individual derived enormous benefit from having a mentor at some stage of their career.  Mentoring has been going on for a very long time – famous relationships include Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great, and more recently Freddie Laker and Richard Branson.  Indeed, government statistics show that 70% of small businesses whose leaders receive mentoring survive for five years or more, which is double the rate compared with non-mentored entrepreneurs and, in addition, they are 20% more likely to experience growth. 

We know that a CEO crisis line has just published data to say that it has received twice as many calls this year as last.  So, if it is true that the leaders within our sector are increasingly aware of the need to run their organisations as successful businesses while also being under incredible pressure from all sides, and if it’s also true that leaders of all kinds benefit from having a mentor, why do so very few Chief Executives, senior management or Board Chairs have mentors?

Let’s be clear about what mentoring is and is not.  Mentoring is not coaching, a process by which your coach will assist you to achieve a specific result or goal.  Neither is it the short route to best practice, which requires you to have a deeper understanding of the sector and how it functions.  Mentoring is all about supporting you as an individual as well as in delivering your role.   The top jobs can be a very lonely place and, in the day to day hassle, you may not wish to share all your doubts or uncertainties with your senior team.  It is perfectly understandable to need to remain (and appear) in complete control.  But no-one can operate in a vacuum and talking those difficult issues through with someone unconnected with your organisation and who is therefore completely objective can support you in making the right decisions, bring confidence in those decisions and help you find the answers in a non-threatening and completely non-judgemental environment.   It would, of course, be a bonus if your mentor had an understanding of the world in which you operate but it is not essential.

Sometimes you just need to hear yourself say something out loud to know if it is right or wrong.  Occasionally all you might need is to offload the things that are making you crazy inside your organisation.  There is always an answer or at least a set of options, you just need to find them and mentors will always help you to do just that.  They are there for you to bounce ideas around, giving you confidence and support on a regular basis.

"Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction."John Crosby

Using the services of a mentor should never be seen as a sign of weakness but, conversely, as part of a leader’s ongoing professional development which shouldn’t stop just because you have reached the top of the organisation. 

I don’t believe that any of us reach a mystical place in our lives where we become all knowing and no longer have anything to learn. It is also completely appropriate for the organisation to provide a support system for its leaders as well as the rest of the staff.  If, as Chief Executive, you also choose to provide mentoring or development support for individuals on your staff, your own mentoring efforts are likely to be better received and more productive if you are not just a mentor, but known to be a mentee as well.  I’ve written before (Paying it forward) about the benefits of mentoring amongst your members but the personal and professional wellbeing of the staff is also incredibly important for the ongoing success of the organisation in delivering services to members.

Being a mentee is about gaining some much-needed perspective, sitting back, taking a deep breath, and putting some distance between you and whatever problems you may have – we all get much too close to the issues we deal with every day and they have a habit of growing larger and enveloping us if we are not careful. The act of describing an issue to a non-participant can help us to clarify our thoughts and perhaps the situation itself in our minds.

Best of all, if you use a neutral outsider with no links to your organisation or the people involved, your discussions will remain completely confidential.  A mentor’s gift to their mentee is not just the trust and understanding that is engendered as the relationship grows but the luxury of someone to lean on, somewhere to let down your guard just for a short while and someone to help you maintain your balance.

A very long time ago I had a mentor who passed on to me her two rules for survival in a competitive world:

            1   Never take no for an answer

            2   Always wear high heels

These two little gems of advice have worked well for me for many years, although I admit that the latter one is something of a challenge these days.  But the point is that a good mentor/mentee relationship will provide you with so much more than you might believe possible.

If you think you might be in need of that extra element of support and are trying to decide whether to reach out to find a mentor then my advice is that you will never know about the benefits you might find unless you give it a try.

"Confidence, like art, never comes from having all the answers; it comes from being open to all the questions."
Earl Gray Stevens
“Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there.” John Wooden
“A leader leads by example, whether he intends to or not.”

To discuss how a mentor would add value and provide support for you, go to our Mentoring page for contact details.