Shoulders to stand on: why leaders need mentors

Shoulders to stand on: why leaders need mentors

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” Isaac Newton.

A good mentor provides the shoulders that their mentoree needs to stand on to see, and go, further. All of us can think of people whose shoulders we have stood on, even if only for a short time. Our giants, or mentors, may have come in the form of colleagues and bosses, family members and friends, or with people we’d asked to mentor us. Mentoring may have come in the form of a one-off chance conversation, or a formal mentoring relationship over several years.

One thing is certain: successful and effective leaders have mentors.

Would a CEO be likely to say “I’ve never had any help or support from anyone to achieve everything I have in my career”?

It’s so unlikely as to be unimaginable. Successful people are very likely to be able to identify easily the mentoring that has helped them achieve their success.

CEO of PepsiCo Indra Nooyi says: “If I hadn’t had mentors, I wouldn’t be here today. I’m a product of great mentoring, great coaching”

What do Aristotle, Barack Obama, Yves Saint Laurent, Bob Dylan, Cheryl Sandberg and Harry Potter have in common?

All of them were mentored. In every field, we find examples of successful mentoring relationships, some of which cascaded down the generations as mentoree became mentor.

  • Socrates mentored Plato, and he went on to mentor Aristotle.
  • Gopal Krishna Gokhale mentored Mahatma Gandhi who went on to mentor Martin Luther King who went on to mentor Jesse Jackson.
  • Woodie Guthrie mentored Bob Dylan.
  • Mitch Albom mentored Morrie Schwartz, author of Tuesdays with Morrie.
  • Christian Dior mentored Yves Saint Laurent.
  • Andy Grove (Intel) mentored Steve Jobs (Apple) who went on to mentor Marc Benioff (
  • Warren Buffet mentored Bill Gates.
  • Larry Summers mentored Cheryl Sandberg.
  • Michelle Robinson (lawyer) mentored Barack Obama.
  • In fiction, Harry Potter was mentored by Dumbledore.

What does mentoring mean in business?

Your organisation may have a formal mentoring programme. But even if it doesn’t, it’s likely that mentoring happens. To be mentored is to learn from someone else’s experience. This is something that happens naturally, all the time. Without thinking of themselves as mentors, people take others under their wing, inspire them to learn new things and help them move beyond their comfort zone.

Natural, organic mentoring can yield fantastic results. But organised, formal mentoring programmes can do just as well, and often even better. A mentoring programme can make a significant, measurable difference to the success of a business.

In the UK, 70% of small businesses that receive mentoring survive for five years or more, twice the survival rate of non-mentored businesses. Those businesses that receive mentoring are 20% more likely to experience growth than those that don’t (source: The Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative).

For small businesses, mentoring could be the difference between survival and failure. What about larger organisations? Can mentoring make a significant difference to them?

Yes. Because the success of a business depends on its leaders. And without mentoring, those leaders may not be able to meet the demands of business. Many leaders know themselves that they are not as prepared as they want to be to meet the challenges they face. In 40% of companies, leaders feel unprepared to meet the business issues they face over the next three to five years. And only 20% of managers identified as high performers successfully advance to higher levels of leadership [Right Management’s Global Report 2016] 

Developing talent

There are a lot of talented people who aren’t reaching their potential. And if people don’t reach their potential, nor do the businesses they work for. Mentoring can be a key part of changing this. So how does it work? What is mentoring, what are the benefits and who can be a mentor?

A historian would tell you the story of Mentor, who took care of Odysseus’ son while he went to fight the Trojan war. A neuroscientist would speak of the plasticity of our brains and the way they change as we learn and absorb information from different sources. An economist would pull out statistics about the impact of mentoring. A politician would perhaps find a way to remould the question, telling us how mentors can decrease crime levels and create jobs.

A mentor themselves would tell you that they pass on their insight and experience to others. I call mentoring the gift of growth. Mentoring means saying to someone:

I was once where you are and you can be where I am and I will help and support you.

The benefits of mentoring

For mentoring to be really useful, it needs to have objectives. If you had a mentor, what would you want to happen as a result? Would you want:

  • To be in the top 10 leaders in your industry?
  • To be more influential with stakeholders in your organisation?
  • To improve your communication style at board level?

The process of defining goals can be extremely valuable, as it forces you to define your ambition. A good mentor will be able to give their mentoree the support they need to try new things, increased confidence, new connections, insight, perspective and improved performance.

And what of the mentor? Mentoring is very much a two-way relationship, benefitting the mentor as much as the mentoree. The mentor develops listening and leadership skills, a fresh perspective, a renewed direction and greater confidence.

Successful mentoring promotes the growth of people and in turn, their organisation. Leaders are developed, skills gaps are closed and people feel valued and invested in. The organisation becomes more connected.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And while the organic, informal kind of mentoring will always go on, for mentoring to be really valuable to your organisation, it may not happen in the way you want or expect. That doesn’t mean that all mentoring must be formalised, but that the process of introducing a mentoring culture into an organisation should be given objectives, just as individual mentoring relationships are.


Organic v formal mentoring

We know that informal mentoring happens all the time, but is that always enough? Or, if we are to meet business and personal goals, do we need a more focussed approach?

Ideally, we need both. Organic mentoring can be a fantastic thing. People naturally seek out those who will give them the support they need to achieve their goals and where that support is freely given. The individuals involved learn and grow and they set an example to others, encouraging a mentoring culture to develop.

But, as productive as this informal mentoring can be, it doesn’t always happen in the ways we expect or meet the objectives we want it to. This is where a formal mentoring programme comes in, giving you the opportunity to make sure that everyone receives the mentoring they need, everyone who wants to mentor can do so and that mentoring happens with business objectives in mind.

The challenge is to make sure that an organisation-wide mentoring programme is owned by its participants, as informal mentoring is. The danger is that a mentoring programme becomes just another HR initiative rather than a way of further encouraging a mentoring culture.


How do I bring mentoring into my organisation?

Look around you, and think about the informal mentoring that happens. What is it that people value most about their mentoring relationships? Who gets the most out of mentoring and why? And how could a formal mentoring programme improve on it?

Retaining the benefits of informal mentoring when you introduce a mentoring programme can be tricky, but it can be done. Think about the different forms mentoring could take. Group mentoring could allow a greater breadth of connections and information sharing than one-to-one mentoring. Reverse mentoring, in which the junior mentors the senior, can boost confidence, instil digital skills and encourage reflection. Whatever you do, you should be constantly encouraging a mentoring culture in which staff seize opportunities for mentoring wherever they find them. Look upon these as ‘mentoring moments’ and encourage people to be ready to soak up wisdom and advice wherever it appears.


An exercise in mentoring

Identify up to three mentors in your life. Go as far back in time as you like. They might be teachers in school or college, colleagues or friends.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What gift or insight did they give you or share with you?
  • How did they help you?
  • How has that helped you today?
  • Is there a pattern amongst the mentors in what you learned, gained and received?
  • In what way does this information help you?
  • How can you go about helping someone else? How will you become a mentor?

Often we read articles and absorb them, but don’t take action. We’re on a mission to change that!

Now you’ve read this article, capture just one thing you’ll do as result.

Let us know what it is – we’d love to hear your ideas and plans.


Photo Credit: Luciano 95

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