The Legend that Created Mentoring

September 30th, 2022

With National Mentoring Day approaching, this blog provides the background on where the term, Mentor, originates.

To the best of my knowledge, the word, ‘Mentor’, was first coined by the ancient author, Homer, in his book, The Odyssey, written around the eighth century B.C.. A central character in The Odyssey is, Odysseus, the king of the Greek island of Ithica. He goes off to fight in the Trojan War (the one with the wooden horse), leaving his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus. Before leaving, he places Telemachus under the guardianship of a man called Mentor.

Mentor’s skills are soon required, as in Odysseus’ absence, several young noblemen try to marry Penelope, which would deny Telemachus of his birth right. Unfortunately, Mentor wasn’t up to the job! Instead of assisting Telemachus to rise to these challenges, he was initially gripped with insecurity and indecision. Fortunately, the Greek Goddess, Athena, intervened. She took the form of Mentor and supported Telemachus to rise to the challenge and keep order in Ithica until his father returned … and then they all lived happily ever after.

Consequently, it isn’t so much Mentor who should be hailed, but the Greek Goddess of wisdom, Athena (disguised as Mentor).

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Why Mentoring Endures

September 30th, 2022

I’ll always remember my first day as Chief Executive of Rumbalara, an Aboriginal sporting and community development organisation. I’d been told the finances were a little “delicate”, so the first meetings scheduled were with the organisation’s accountant and Treasurer. The accountant told me that we were six-eight weeks away from insolvency and the Treasurer explained that he was “not very good with numbers” and “just signed things”. Oh dear. I suddenly felt very alone: there was no other senior manager in the organisation.

Fortunately, the wisdom of the Indigenous culture came to the rescue: for thousands of years huge importance has been placed on a system of Elders, where experienced community members guide the less experienced. Consequently, Rumbalara’s Chairman intuitively saw the need for mentoring. My two subsequent mentors would help make my working life so much easier, effective and enjoyable. This made life outside of work far more pleasant too.

From then on, I’ve been ‘sold’ on the value of mentoring and since founding mch in 2005; I’ve been drawn to mentoring work in various guises. However, my passion for mentoring would count for little if it wasn’t in continual demand. So, what creates the demand?

I believe the answer lies in the characteristics of a healthy mentoring relationship. A great mentor is independent, experienced and skilled and their sole focus is to help their mentee. In addition to their expertise and motivation, they give enough time to the relationship to enable genuine progress. Who wouldn’t benefit from having such a person in their life?

While mentoring’s focus is very much on the mentee, almost all mentors I’ve spoken with gain just as much from the relationship. In addition to the ‘warm glow’ that comes with being of service to someone else, mentoring offers an ideal environment for self-reflection and for enhancing the emotional intelligence and communication skills required for great management and leadership.

If you haven’t already, I hope you find yourself a mentor or mentee (or perhaps both).

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What I read and watched in ‘Book Week’

July 26th, 2022

I have just enjoyed a great ‘book week’: reading books and watching films that have direct and tangential relevance to my work.

‘Die with Zero’ was a particuarly thought provoking read and chimed with my animation series which aims to encourage those with more than enough to give some of it away to those who don’t:

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Leadership Insights from My Sabbatical

May 11th, 2022

As part of my sabbatical I conducted some work shadowing and had the privilege of shadowing or conducting in depth interviews with:

  • A dairy farmer
  • A clinical psychologist
  • The owner of a construction company
  • A charity CEO
  • A fundraising team of a national charity
  • A CEO of a social enterprise
  • A priest

I knew these people personally or professionally and consciously chose to shadow a diverse range of people and professions. The only qualification was that I considered each individual to be consistently successful in their roles (using an ad hoc mix of subjective and objective measures).

The motivation for the shadowing was a genuine interest in fundamental questions, such as:

  • Why do people do what they do?
  • What does it take to be consistently successful in a role?
  • Are there any common characteristics in top performers, regardless of their role?

Here are just three of the insights I gained from the experience.

1. The Importance of Purpose

A trait shared by all I shadowed was that their purpose was bigger than themselves. For example, when I asked the dairy farmer why he did what he did, he responded;

“I’m part of a story …. to make organic farming mainstream.”

He went on to say;

“My role is to ensure that if a cow ever leaves my herd, they do so in the best possible health.”

Given the costs of organic dairy farming are often double non-organic farming, but you can rarely charge double the price at the point of sale, there is an explicit need for innovation and consistently high performance. Also, if you do your very best to ensure cows stay fit and healthy, they’re more likely to produce good yields of milk. Both these factors are likely to improve the financial bottom line. However, for the farmer I shadowed, the financial benefits genuinely seemed to be an ancillary benefit to his primary goals of promoting organic farming and taking care of his cattle.

2. Values as a Driver

In many cases I was struck by the clarity of values and the lengths some of the individuals would go to live by them. To illustrate, the clinical psychologist I interviewed had worked with victims/survivors of rape. She was appalled by how often they were poorly treated by the court system. What she was observing ran completely counter to her value of justice.

Her response? Whilst still holding down a full time job as a clinical psychologist, she spent several years completing a law degree on evenings and weekends. This enabled her to engage with the legal profession, to bring about much needed change, in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if she weren’t a lawyer herself. Values drove outcomes.

3. Balancing Enough with Constantly Striving

One of the CEOs I shadowed had led their organisation through a period of expansion. As a result, the organisation’s Board felt it appropriate to award them and their senior leadership team and salary increase, in recognition of their increased remit and responsibilities. While the CEO did not oppose the increase for their team, they did not accept their own salary increase. Instead, they requested that their increase was reinvested into the organisation. This request was actioned very discreetly.

For me, this was someone who had taken the time to reflect on what was enough for them financially and then lived within those parameters. While at a micro level, I believe it sets a very important example for society as a whole, if we are to have a sustainable future. I also think that this individual understood that while their salary prevents them from feeling unappreciated, it does not provide reliable ‘fuel’ for continually striving to improve.

More than anything, the successful people I shadowed were humble. They were very aware that they would never be the finished article as a leader/practitioner, but they were deeply, intrinsically motivated to continue on the journey of improvement.

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Thank you for a great sabbatical

March 1st, 2022

Huge thanks to the many organisations who helped the work experience part of my sabbatical so insightful and enjoyable. Yeo Valley, John Perkins Construction Ltd, Christ Church Westbourne, NHS Education for Scotland, Julia’s House, On Purpose and Meningitis Now, thank you very much!

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