Mentoring a CEO – the Challenge and the Journey

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I spent the last 18 months formally mentoring a CEO – and it was an incredible experience.

I knew nothing about his sector or business. Never needed to and neither was I ever expected to. For a teetotal, I thought it was quite ironic to be chosen by the CEO of a thriving brewery to be his mentor.

I never met my mentee before we started the programme and we were potentially “matched” under the Leadership Development Initiative of the Institute of Directors (IoD).

He was (and still is) a very astute businessman and I was someone whose skills were deeply rooted in the world of Public Relations, with a very strong formal and informal background in business leadership and change management.

It was an interesting experience for me because, before the formalities became final and we were “paired”, I had to be interviewed by my potential mentee.

We had a long first discussion, of over an hour, where he told me what he was looking for in a mentor and why he needed one. With no prior knowledge of what he was looking for, other than his and his business’ names, during that first conversation I had to prove to him that should he choose me, I could really make a difference to the way he led and developed his business.

I wasn’t the only potential mentor he had to “interview”. But I was the one he had chosen.

When one runs a business, especially one that has significant growth potential and several variable unknowns, it’s easy to forget or overlook the fact that businesses are run and made a success by people: fallible, emotional, agenda and ambition-driven, with a diverse mix of personalities and working styles.

To understand what leadership is about and excel at being a leader, the skills one needs are very different than those required to ensure that the machinery and equipment are working properly or that the supply chain and quality of stock are second to none.

My mentee and I finished our formal “programme” in December 2018 after having started it in the summer of 2017. His “wish-list”, as expected, grew exponentially since we started, and what he initially considered to be his priorities changed, too.

Leadership is as much about the others as it is about yourself. One of the points my mentee and I spent considerable time on was his staff’s work ethics and priorities. For someone very much used to a very high standard of work ethics, purpose driven work attitude and commitment, understanding why others may not see the “job” as he did was difficult at times.

The most difficult and complex part of any CEO’s leadership journey is that long hard look in the mirror and getting to know yourself, your limitations and strengths before you can even attempt to criticise or change others’. It’s much easier – or harder, depending on one’s self-awareness – to change yourself to reach the wavelength of those whose lives you impact, rather than expecting them to change to meet your “requirements”.

My main takeaways from our sessions were that regardless of one’s age and/or experience, we all need third-party help and guidance at some point. Asking for help and guidance should never be seen as a management weakness, but a strength.

Having had to submit accurate Reflection Notes to the IoD after each mentoring session and going back through them as I write this article, the progress made by “my” CEO was remarkable. In the conclusion of one of my Reflection Notes I wrote this in relation to his progress:

People can change, providing you take them on a journey and relate to them the pros and cons of every potential action they may take.

For those of you who read this article and wonder what the connection between Public Relations and CEO Leadership Development is, let alone a very technical process such as that of making beer, I can tell you that not even once in the 18 months we worked together had we spoken about “beer”. And while being a CEO has a lot to do with the management processes specific to any business, being a “leader” doesn’t.

Perhaps, those who run Leadership Development Programmes may need to widen their pool of mentors to include individuals with a lot of experience in “humanistic arts”. After all, understanding the extent of corporate risks, issues and employee engagement, human factors and psychological triggers, behavioural change and change management fall under the scope of Public Relations, as a chartered, degree-level “art and science”.

As for my mentee, although our formal relationship came to an end, we’ll remain in touch for many years to come. It’s hard not to once you’ve spent a significant amount of time helping someone grow, become better, and be privy to a lot of “insider” knowledge. I’ve had many mentees over the past years, some formal others informal – it’s imperative for them to know that they have someone they can pick up the phone to or meet for a brutally honest, purpose driven discussion.

And it’s not about me, the mentor, providing the mentees with solutions to their problems. That’s the worse thing anyone can ever do; it’s about the art of asking them enough questions or providing them with a multitude of scenarios so that they find those answers themselves.

By teaching them how to question their thought process and potential decisions, to verify whether they are the right ones, you empower them with a skill for life, regardless of which company they will be the CEO of one day.

Below is an excerpt from my mentee’s Final Mentoring Report – part of his feedback, if you wish, on our journey together:

“[…] has shown great patience in hearing my issues and then guiding me to find a way forward without ever telling me what to do. This has given me confidence in my own abilities and judgement as well as teaching me the virtue of looking at issues from the others point of view.

And I do work in Public Relations.

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