Natalie Bickford: My mentor

Mentoring to me has always meant having somebody more senior within my organisation whom I spend time with, once every three months or so, thinking and talking about both long-term career development and managing the here and now well, and better.

The challenge, as I have always seen it, is to find somebody to work with that you like enough to want to spend time with, but who is different enough to create some real tension and challenge. There is no point in having a mentor who is so like you that meetings simply become a mutual admiration society, Similarly, if your personal styles and values are too disparate, then it is extremely hard to form a good enough basis for a relationship.

Generally, and largely unintentionally, I have gravitated towards senior women as mentors, who perhaps better understand the challenges of being a female driving her career in the predominantly male-dominated environments of finance, DIY retailing and pharmaceuticals.

My first mentor was Alison Hopkins (now Brittain), who is currently the retail managing director for Abbey.

I met Alison in 1995 when she appointed me to my first HR role in a major Barclays Business Banking organisation change programme.

Alison has an extraordinary ability to deliver tough and challenging messages in a way that inspires rather than alienates, and she is highly respected for her combination of strategic vision and ability to drive operational delivery.

When at times I have lacked the self confidence to push for bigger and better things, Alison has given me a good kick, and made me realise that the barriers standing in the way have been entirely self-imposed.

The most important thing, however, that I ever learned from Alison is that you don’t have to be one person at home, and a different person in the workplace. She is funny, irreverent, and builds relationships with everyone from the security guard to the chairman, and is also one of the most successful female executives in the UK. Throughout my career I have adopted a similar style and find that it works very well for me.

Over the years I have used a range of other mentors at different times and in different companies to great effect, but I still come back to Alison for support, challenge and advice when I have a real toughie to crack.

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