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Case study

Could you be the mentor someone’s looking for?

Experienced mentor Keith Softly tells us all about how mentoring works, what’s involved and why he believes other senior managers should get involved.

When asked to describe the benefits of mentoring, Keith Softly, managing director at Lloyds Bank and Be the Business mentor, had plenty of positives: career-enhancing; mind-broadening; pride-inducing; leadership-developing; and personally fulfilling, to name but a few.

When mentoring is discussed, it’s usually with a focus on the benefits to the mentee. Of course, that perspective is essential, as the purpose of a mentoring programme is to boost the leadership qualities and business outcomes for another business leader.

But successful mentoring relationships are true partnerships, as valuable an experience to one side as the other.

Keith Softly is an experienced mentor, having spent plenty of time working with and listening to other business leaders, both within and outside of his area of expertise.

Here, he tells us all about how mentoring works, what’s involved, how he felt about the experience, and why he believes other senior managers should get involved with the Be the Business Mentoring for Growth programme.

Getting started with mentoring

Before being assigned a mentee through Mentoring for Growth, each potential mentor has to complete an application – outlining skills, experience, interests, motivation and objectives.

Keith believes it’s essential to be as open as possible during this part of the process as it ensures mentors and mentees are correctly matched.

“The telephone interview, self-assessment surveys and subsequent conversations, create an opportunity to reflect on your own strengths and experiences” explained Keith.

“It was great for my own development to reflect on the conversations I like to have and the skills I don’t always need to apply in my day-to-day role, but could be useful to a mentee.”

After completing the application, mentors are matched with their mentees. In Keith’s case, he was matched with Stephen Ellis, the newly-appointed operations and technical director at Evac Chair.

“I’m experienced in working with the manufacturing sector but it’s incredible just how diverse, knowledgeable, creative, pioneering and entrepreneurial SME leaders are,” Keith said.

“I was delighted to find such synergy and positive energy in our mentoring relationship,” he went on, detailing the steps each took as part of the mentoring process, including allocating time and travelling to each other’s premises.

Areas of focus

During these meetings, the pair discussed Evac Chair’s business strategy, positioning, practical matters related to business expansion, as well as testing and discussing new ideas.

“Sometimes we would wonder initially what we would discuss, but two or three hours later we would still be stuck in,” Stephen remembered. “Somehow there was always so much to cover, and all of it useful.”

Within their collaboration sessions, the pair discovered some of their shared experiences, including the challenges of managing and motivating people.

“We reflected on what could have been done differently or better,” Stephen went on, “and we worked through problems and solutions.”

For both mentor and mentee, this element of the mentoring programme allowed the other to access alternative perspectives and gain valuable insights.

For Keith, he was able to see the challenges Stephen faced first-hand, while Stephen was able to use Keith as a sounding board for new ideas.

Mentoring doesn’t just benefit mentees

For many small- and medium-sized businesses, access to training and advice can be limited, which is where a mentoring programme comes in.

By being matched with an appropriate mentor, mentees from smaller firms can utilise the experience of their mentor to develop their own skills and knowledge.

For a mentor, it’s important to remember that mentoring an external, smaller business is an entirely different challenge to coaching and developing an internal team.

Mentoring within your own business means you’ll have some prior knowledge of the responsibilities, expectations and challenges involved, whereas mentoring an external leader will mean learning challenges afresh.

“The support I could give enabled my mentee to challenge their own thinking and consider a broader perspective to the crucial decisions they were looking to make,” Keith reported.

“Applying my knowledge to an entirely different business type and industry was challenging, but highly rewarding.”

For these reasons, mentoring results in benefiting both mentor and mentee.

As a mentor, the chance to hone and develop skills in an area away from your comfort zone can greatly improve your abilities as a leader, making it a worthwhile experience in terms of your own career prospects. This experience will also be relevant for your existing role.

“Empathy and insight into how businesses operate, listening and taking a client-first approach are competencies encouraged in our leadership programmes at Lloyds Bank.” Keith added.

“Those with mentoring experience will be even better equipped to support our clients.”

Mentoring is for life, not just for Christmas

Mentoring requires a long-term commitment, from both the mentor and the mentee. Both parties share equal responsibility in making the partnership work, and the benefits of working together will blossom and grow over time.

For mentors, a commitment to mentoring and a genuine interest in helping others succeed is essential.

“You need to be genuinely interested, passionate and enthusiastic to give the pairing the very best chance of quickly establishing a rapport,” Keith confirmed.

“This applies to your mentee too,” he went on. “When both sides display this level of commitment to listening to each other and enabling change, progress can really be made.”

Mentoring during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has affected businesses in innumerable, and mentoring is included within that list. Business leaders across the spectrum have turned their attention to adapting, pivoting and firefighting as their business feels the effects of the huge economic changes brought on by the pandemic.

Could mentoring be even more valuable during this time? Keith pointed to how the disciplines applied in mentoring, of testing new ideas, exploring innovation and reshaping business strategy, will be crucial in emerging stronger, more resilient and prepared for future major challenges.

Business leaders will also be facing higher levels of stress and anxiety than ever before. Talking to an external mentor with their interests at heart could make a big difference to their ability to maintain perspective, manage their people, keep a positive focus and manage their own mental health and wellbeing.

“Businesses will need to act decisively and may need to make considerable changes in order to diversify and adjust their business strategy,” Keith went on.

“Having a mentor on board can help a business owner to accelerate the changes needed and build the confidence to push forward.”

Stephen agreed with Keith’s sentiment. “As our company was going through some major changes, such as moving factory site which came with logistics, engagement, cultural and geographic challenges, having Keith as a sounding board was fantastic,” he reported.

“His experience in people management in another industry helped me approach our challenges successfully, to motivate, communicate, keep my teams on board and ultimately deliver a seamless move.

Some final thoughts on mentoring

For Keith, the mentoring programme represented an opportunity to share skills and experience, but gain valuable knowledge as well.

“When you go back into your corporate environment, it will be with a richer understanding of business, a greater sense of insight and empathy, and with justified confidence, personal fulfilment and pride,” he said.

For Stephen, the mentoring experience has been just as positive. “A mentor brings perspectives from outside of your business and will give advice, where it’s useful,” he reported.

“It’s down to you what you do with the advice, as you know your business best – but if there’s an angle you haven’t considered, a different way of thinking, adding this into your thought process will only make you a stronger and more effective leader.”

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