Like most people, I’ve had a series of mentors. Mine began with the girl who sat beside me at school, and on our first day she said to me “Don’t tell the teacher”. That was very good advice.
I initially worked in the NHS, where I had a lot of more experienced colleagues, not just in HR, but in other disciplines too. They were prepared to pass on their experience, in a supportive and helpful way, so I regarded them as mentors over a brief period. I think one of the distinguishing qualities of a good mentor is that they are not just dishing out advice, but giving you the space to develop your ideas and to question what you’re doing. A good mentor is like a critical friend. They should be objective, while thinking about your interests.
Sometimes with a mentor, if the two of you are too similar, you’ll just sit and agree. If they look at things from a different angle, they tend to make you think a little bit more. My most recent mentor was Jan, my last chief executive. I worked for her for four years. She questioned me a lot at work, but in a supportive way, wanting me to develop.
Our mentoring relationship developed out of a formal working relationship, where we had a lot of business to transact. Jan has the right skills for mentoring. Every boss should be a bit of a mentor, and she was keen to help me to develop, to make sure that I wasn’t limiting myself. We met at least weekly – it would be a mixture of the normal business and an element of mentoring. To an extent, Jan was consciously mentoring me, as she tended to reflect on why people do what they do.
She’s just left the organisation, but we will stay in touch. I find her take on things very helpful – it’s complementary to my own, and she can always surprise me. She will ask ‘Why are you doing that?’, which really makes me sit up and take stock.