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Case study

My mentor challenged me in a good way, like a critical friend

While mentoring is a great way for business leaders to sense check the big decisions they have to make it is also very helpful to set a founding strategy, as Meena Anand found out.

A seasoned human resources professional in a global organisation, Meena Anand realised how much she had to learn when she decided to set up her own career development business. In response Meena turned to Be the Business mentor Chris Saul, who helped her adjust from the corporate world to the life of an entrepreneur.

In 2021 Meena's career took a new direction. While she had many years of human resources expertise under her belt – her most recent corporate role was as MD and chief HR officer for the 30,000 employee-strong Global Business Services arm of Standard Chartered Bank – Meena wanted a new challenge.

So two years ago she quit corporate life and, armed with a masters degree in career coaching, set up The Careers Company. The new business set out to support the career success of under-represented and often under-served employee groups, including women, ethnic minorities, lower socio-economic groups and people who are neuro-diverse.

“For all my business experience, starting a new company was uncharted territory,” she admitted. “So when I came across the Be the Business Mentoring programme, I seized the opportunity.”

Meena was matched with Chris Saul, chief strategy and innovation officer at Hitachi Europe. Chris has a 25-year track record of building and transforming both small to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) and Fortune 500 companies. He has brought entrepreneurial, innovative and visionary energy to bear in helping both top-line growth and bottom-line performance in his executive roles and in the board advisory roles he’s undertaken as a chartered director and fellow of the Institute of Directors.

Sharing the learning

“My career has spanned both large corporations and entrepreneurial SMEs, but has been essentially focused around growth,” explained Chris. “One consistent theme in all businesses is the importance of being clear about strategic direction in order to prioritise what is, always, scarce resource towards the goal.” And he’s always been keen to share that learning with others, including his mentees.

He added: “There’s never enough time to do everything, so you have to be very clear of your value proposition, differentiation, your target market and how you’re going to build long-term customers. Then it’s about getting the right operations in place to deliver on your promises. After that focus shifts to staying on the growth trajectory.”

Chris pointed out that the mentoring relationship is "a safe space" in which the mentor can – and should – be “quite challenging” with their mentees. “That is how you can get the best out of the relationship,” he commented. “Meena was very receptive to that.”

In fact, Meena was so receptive, that she did what she describes as “a complete pivot” on her basic proposition.

She explained: “Chris certainly challenged me – but in a really nice way, like a ‘critical friend’. It might sound ridiculous, but a lot of what he did in the early days was help me understand what my business was about. He made me reflect on what I thought I wanted to do, and I ended up thinking very differently.”

Chris challenged me – but in a really nice way, like a ‘critical friend’.

Meena Anand, CEO of The Careers Company

Having the courage to pivot

Meena’s original idea was to run individual career coaching for people – a business-to-consumer (B2C) proposition. The influence of Chris led her to change her focus to a business-to-business (B2B) and partnerships proposition. "This was much more aligned to my corporate background,” she admitted. “I realised that marketing to consumers just wasn’t me. I wasn’t very good at it, I didn’t really understand the market well enough and it went completely against my values and how I would normally do business development. It was really good having an objective person sitting there and saying ‘so why do you want to do it like this?’.”

Chris also helped her hone messaging and define the value proposition in a way that would resonate with the people holding the purse strings in her target companies. The two also discussed different commercial and business models and Chris introduced her to third parties where he thought there would be mutual benefit.

When setting up a business, Chris pointed out, there are “millions of things to do". Someone who had been an human resource development for most of their career would have no reason to understand what they are.

“We are all strong in the areas where our careers have taken us, but we all have gaps that others with different expertise can help us fill. People with experience in complementary areas really can accelerate progress and reduce risk,” he believes.

A tailored and flexible approach

However, the role of a mentor is not simply to “walk in with a recipe book and say ‘this is how you make this’,” stated Chris. “It’s the conversation and debate that’s important, because that leads to you solving the problem based on your joint experience and arriving at a solution that’s right for the business in question. If you, as a mentor, have solved the problem they face 20 times already, you’ve maybe got 20 different ways of solving it, but you pitch the options to them that you think might be most appropriate by saying ‘have you thought about this?’. I never say to people ‘you should do it this way’.”

Nor is Chris didactic about the mentoring timetable. The formal Be the Business Mentoring programme typically lasts for three months, with weekly meetings, or 12 months with monthly ones. Neither he or Meena wanted to be that rigid – and meeting that frequently wasn’t aligned with the way Meena’s business was evolving.

“You need to meet at the appropriate moment,” he urged. “At each meeting I tend to pick up on our strategic activities first, then ask the mentee to identify a critical current challenge, we work on it together, and then we meet again at the point where the issue is resolved, or another issue has come to the fore. With mentoring you want a programme focusing on fundamental adjustments that are going to make you more successful, which means focusing on the right things at the right time.”

This approach suited Meena. “There was quite a lot for me to do between sessions, so weekly meetings felt really tight,” she said. “In advance of every meeting I shared with Chris what I wanted to focus on – what was important to me at that particular point. He was really good at just going with it.”

Chris Saul used his previous mentoring experiences to build an effective and supporting relationship with Meena
When the value you add is appreciated and makes a positive difference, it is hugely rewarding.

Chris Saul, chief strategy and innovation officer at Hitachi Europe

Coach, not tell

Although the formal mentoring period has ended, Meena and Chris continue to talk.

“Once you build a relationship with a business, and there still feels like joint value, I’m happy to keep talking,” commented Chris.

He described his approach as “coaching rather than telling.” He explained further: “With any advisory role, it’s important that it is actionable by the people you are talking to, and to acknowledge that they may not have done these things before. I take it step by step, so mentees can embed the advice and, hopefully, translate it into action.”

Because Chris has helped Meena to crystallise her thinking, she has become much more confident in her new venture, she revealed.

But why does Chris devote time to pro-bono mentoring, particularly when he has a very demanding ‘day job’? “What I love about Be the Business is that it brings together individuals from companies of all sizes. When the value you add is appreciated and makes a positive difference, it is hugely rewarding.” he said. “It’s also a nice break from the complicated, very large-scale, multinational work that I do at Hitachi.”

And he learns from his involvement with the mentees too. “In my career I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible people, from whom I’ve learned a great deal – and I keep on learning. We all have gaps in our skills portfolio, and there are always new ideas out there, but it sometimes takes someone or something to interrupt you to make you see it.”

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