Mentoring is the new networking

Jan Gooding: Mentoring is the new networking

The promise of a confidential conversation based on goodwill and positive intent on both sides is a precious thing. How often do any of us get that?

I notice that pop-up mentoring schemes are on the rise in the marketing industry. Judging by the enthusiastic take-up by people on both sides of the table, it has fast become a very successful form of intergenerational networking.

The importance of relationships with people more senior who can pass on the wisdom that comes from experience and hindsight has always been understood.

However, I suspect the extent of home-working these days has made it much harder for people to access those kinds of conversations and must be driving demand for more organised arrangements.

Over the years, I have participated in mentoring programmes run by Wacl, AAR and The Marketing Society. Varying in approach and target audience, they typically operate as a kind of “blind date”, whereby more senior mentors are matched with talented people looking for some advice. Mentors offer an hour of their time to people they have never met before and the mentees are usually given at least four mentors to speak to.

Accessible advice

One of the key success factors seems to be that the mentors are all volunteers. I assume the kind of people who offer their time enjoy meeting motivated younger people seeking advice and have themselves benefited from the wisdom of experienced mentors.

It does also mean that the service is highly accessible: for example, it’s a free offer made by Marketing Society fellows to other members. Personally, while affordability is important, I prefer a model that acknowledges the value exchange with a modest price point and the proceeds going to something worthwhile.

Another characteristic is that those who seek mentorship are generally placed in the driving seat. As soon as initial introductions have been made, they are the ones who get in touch, arrange the session and decide what they want to focus on.

Sometimes I have been sent an explanation of what issue will be tabled in advance — this certainly makes more efficient use of the time. But it’s possible to quickly understand the dilemma someone is facing and act as a sounding board without much scene-setting.

Being honest with a stranger

I’m interested in the power of random conversations like this. A level of intimacy and honesty is often achieved that you wouldn’t normally expect from two strangers in the first hour of conversation. Particularly when discussing something as important as our professional lives and experiences, where both sides are prepared to show vulnerability.

The promise of a confidential conversation based on goodwill and positive intent on both sides is a precious thing. How often do any of us get that? No politics in play, no reputational risk, nothing out of bounds, no record-keeping, not even any obligation to follow any of the advice.

It will not surprise anyone to know that the dilemma people bring to this kind of conversation is: what do you think I should do next? And this is not necessarily anything to do with making a career change. Increasingly, it is about how to make the most of the opportunity they are already in.

Opportunity to learn

People vary in terms of how much they feel they are learning and developing in their current role. However, the rate of constant organisational change brings a sense of urgency about extracting everything they can now before things change again. I remember when the idea of a CEO having a “100-day plan” as they go into a new role became common currency. Now it seems everyone has to have one.

There are also some people who describe feeling stuck in organisations that don’t make them feel valued. They are thinking about moving elsewhere. It is surprising to find what a poor job many line managers and companies are doing in terms of laying out the options that would encourage someone to stay.

Flexible working is an important component, but far more vital is the opportunity to keep learning by working in different disciplines, taking on different responsibilities or attending formal training. We keep being told that we need to learn new skills and yet few companies seem to be investing in the required training, let alone understanding what a good retention tool it is.

The importance of two plans

I always encourage people to have a “plan A” and a “plan B”, where “plan A” is the one that assumes you stay in your organisation and consider all the opportunities to learn and progress that are available. I often suggest people work out for themselves what courses they might want to attend or work experience they hope to have, and then ask for it. Taking a proactive approach can be incredibly refreshing and rewarding.

“Plan B” is an emerging, yet-to-be-acted-upon idea of what you would be looking for if you moved somewhere else. A plan that is focused on delivering continuous learning more than an improved remuneration package per se. You would be amazed at what a radical way of thinking this can be for people.

Too often, I find that people are thinking about progress purely in terms of whether they get a pay rise or a promotion. Even their “plan B” is restricted to assertions about being paid more or being promoted quicker.

I am not saying those two things aren’t important, but there is so much more to consider when thinking about staying or leaving.

I should and could have worked harder to stay in touch with people I worked with in each of my roles. I wish I had understood how important it was to nurture relationships outside my immediate team and organisation by joining The Marketing Society, Market Research Society and Wacl sooner than I did.

These days, organised mentoring has become another great way to network and establish useful connections to draw on for future advice. The truth is that none of us ever stop asking ourselves “what next”, so it’s a subject that will never tire, wherever you are in your working life.

Jan Gooding is one of the UK’s best-known brand marketers, having worked with Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo and Unilever. She is now an executive coach, chair of PAMCo and Given. She writes for The Media Leader each month.

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