The power of mentoring – Kate Keaney’s experience

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By Kate Keaney

28 Oct 2019

Yesterday was National Mentoring Day. To mark the occasion we sat down with our CEO, Kate Keaney, to talk about her experiences of mentors - and of being a mentor herself.

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Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. In my career, I have been lucky to have a whole host of mentors – and in turn, to have been a mentor myself. In this blog I want to share my experiences and what I’ve learned about the art, and the power, of mentoring. 

My experience as a mentee 

I’ve never been part of a formal mentorship programme, though I have seen the value these can provide to people and their organisations. My mentors have been people I have felt an instinctive and personal connection to, and people I’ve sought out because of their distinct differences to me. Our ‘mentoring sessions’ have usually been catch-ups over coffee, in-the-moment phone calls, and on one occasion even a holiday together. 

I am incredibly proud to say that my first mentor is a lady with whom I am still in touch today. We first met when I was 21, and I was working at Abbey National on their graduate programme. We didn’t work together directly; she sat a few desks away from me, a contractor in her 50s who I would bump into at the coffee machine frequently. I remember she had the most incredible style when we spoke – she always asked me questions and clearly showed an interest in me, my progress, challenges and thoughts. She was prepared to share her advice and experience which I was grateful for. Her name is Madeline Tate. 

"She told me that she saw in me all the talents, skills and qualities she had when she was my age – and more. It gave me confidence and improved my self-talk and self-belief."

 Over the years she has supported me through various crunch points, both professionally and personally. When I left Abbey National to join a B2B company, in a field I had very limited experience in, Maddie helped me prepare. She gave me insight into different types of organisation and a sector that I’d never seen before. I got that job thanks to Maddie’s help, preparation and advice.  

The rest as they say, is history. Maddie has been a sounding board for me, and provided advice and guidance, for the best part of 20 years now. I was on the phone with her just this week, in fact, seeking advice on a challenge that I’m working through. 

A two-way relationship 

It’s been interesting to reflect on how the relationship between Maddie and me has changed as I have developed and grown – and the question of why Maddie chose to mentor me. After all, helping me took time – which is precious for everybody – with no obvious upside for her. I imagine that a few people might wonder about this when looking for a mentor – and might feel put off from asking, which is a shame. 

Maddie’s reasons for mentoring me became clear when I was visiting her in Crete. During our chats, Maddie told me that she saw in me all the talents, skills and qualities she had when she was my age – and more. She told me she was certain I would surpass her in my own career, and that she was proud to have helped me on my journey. I felt blown away by this as I looked up to her immensely. I’d been going through a lot personally, so this insight gave me confidence and improved my self-talk and self-belief. 

The idea of being proud to mentor someone was further validated for me when things came full circle and I myself become a mentor. 

 

My experience as a mentor 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found my first mentee in almost exactly the same way that my first mentor found me. I was Head of Talent at the Home Retail Group, and amongst other things I ran the colleague engagement survey for 52,000 people across three operating companies, reporting into the group board. Champions were in place in each operating company to help deliver this enormous piece of work – and generally they found this a complicated and difficult activity. 

Except for Kim. She worked in a team just up the corridor from me; she was about 22 at that time, was our champion for the Argos business, and a shining light of capability. She asked lots of questions, listened, noticed details, hit deadlines, and got things done. We clicked and we stayed connected, even after I left Home Retail Group. I often saw her on the train into London where we frequently shared stories, exchanged advice, and I was a sounding board for Kim’s decisions. Later, she moved into the very role I had left and therefore faced challenges which I understood. 

"Giving my time to help nurture up-and-coming talent and see Kim become successful has been incredibly rewarding."

 Today Kim is a Director at the age of 31 and continues to stretch and grow through deploying her potential, pushing herself outside her comfort zone and really understanding how to positively influence people and get things done. 

Looking back now, it’s clear to me why a mentor like Maddie would spend time with me – because it was for exactly the same reasons I was spending time with Kim. By the time I met Kim, I had gained my own experiences, navigated lots of challenges and had some of my own successes. I was able to start giving back, and in Kim I saw all the raw ingredients that Maddie had seen in me when I was 21. Giving my time to help nurture up-and-coming talent and see Kim become successful has been incredibly rewarding. 

What makes a great mentor? 

In my experience, great mentors can be from very different backgrounds, at very different life stages from you. All my mentors have combined a few key qualities that I think about when I put my own mentor hat on. 

The first and arguably most important quality is mutual respect. Though I was nearly 30 years her junior, not once did Maddie ever condescend with her advice. I always felt like an equal adult. Unfortunately, I have had advisors in the past whose words tended to come across as ‘preachy’– a sign perhaps that they cared more about validating their own experience and achievements than nurturing my talents. 

"Though I was nearly 30 years her junior, not once did Maddie ever condescend with her advice. I always felt like an equal adult." 

Secondly, a mentor should understand the different skills and styles used in mentoring and coaching. Mentoring is about giving guidance and advice, sharing experiences and perspectives, making introductions and helping the mentee connect the dots. Coaching is about helping someone unlock their own potential with insightful questions, playback and challenge. Both can be extremely valuable, and the two terms are often used interchangeably, but they are very different and should be used intentionally and specifically for different purposes. 

How do you know which one you need? Ask yourself – are you looking for specific guidance, or are you looking for someone to help you think through a problem? The former is mentoring; the latter is coaching. 

I was extremely lucky that Maddie was a behavioural expert, and a qualified coach – which meant that not only could she coach me when I needed it, but that she knew when to coach and when to mentor. I don’t think that mentors need to be able to coach – many of the mentors I work with right now don’t coach at all. But in my view they do need to know the difference and not confuse the two styles. 

"Mentoring is about giving guidance and advice, sharing experiences and perspectives, making introductions and helping the mentee connect the dots."

 Finally, mentors should have full command of the different voices we use to communicate with each other. At Connor we use the Voiceprint® tool when coaching clients. It identifies nine different voices we use in the workplace – and how those voices change under stress. Most of us have voices we favour and those that we use less; in my experience the best mentors use a full blend of critiquing, enquiring, probing, advising, articulating, diagnosing, challenging and advocating voices. 

For instance: if I have a problem, they may present me with the pros and cons of a specific course of action (critiquing). They may seek to understand why I have chosen that course of action (probing), and perhaps challenge me on that decision, before advising and advocating a specific approach. 

The value of multiple mentors 

I have alluded to having other mentors besides Maddie. Undoubtedly the deepest connection with any of my mentors is with her, as over time our relationship has grown. As time has passed however, I have also found other mentors with a wide range of perspectives to support my growth. 

Technology is evolving; legislation is changing; people are finding new ways to thrive. I needed mentors who were connected to these challenges and environments day-to-day and who were ahead of me in their learnings and experiences. 

These days I have mentors experienced in scaling their businesses like we are doing at Connor, and mentors working at the cutting edge of technology and automation – a field that I have been less involved with. I have mentors who have transitioned to the role of CEO in their career, and business founders and owners with lots of experience managing risk and governance.  

By choosing mentors in various fields, I can access deep knowledge that I might never otherwise have been able to find. A range of mentors also brings lots of different perspectives and thinking styles to me. It sometimes can be hard to hear what they have to say when we are so different – but to me that’s where a lot of the value is. Maddie never makes a conversation easy on me – and that’s why conversations with her are so valuable. I have another mentor who is far more ‘cut-throat’ than me in his decision-making. Speaking with him often changes my perspectives on things and often I find a middle ground somewhere between our styles. 

"By having a host of mentors in various areas, I can access deep knowledge that I might never otherwise have been able to find." 

The best advice I’ve been given by a mentor 

There are two pieces of advice from my mentors which really stood out to me over the years, in part because they’re applicable to everyone I know. 

The first was from Maddie – and the advice was to always seek to understand a situation from ‘the third position’. 

The first position is your own perspective, the second is the perspective of the other person – and most of us are pretty good at those. The third position is harder; it involves understanding the dynamics between people in a situation. If you can see the inter-connected dynamics in the third position, it can help you take an objective view on a situation and understand how best to influence it for a win-win. This advice has helped me make far more powerful decisions because I can see the likely impact of decisions before I make them. 

The second one is a little more fun, from my current chairman Paul Allen. He said to me about eight years ago: “always know where your safety cord is, and then go and do the thing you’re scared of anyway.” 

He told me this when I was considering setting up my own company – which was both incredibly exciting and daunting. I had a mortgage and bills to pay, and I hadn’t run a business before, so it felt like an enormous risk. What would I do if it all went wrong?  

Paul encouraged me to consider – if that happened, who would want to give me a job that would pay the bills? Once I had my safety cord in place, I could get on and start my business anyway, knowing that I had a backup if things went wrong. Thankfully they didn’t – and that advice has stuck with me ever since. 

One of the most valuable ways to develop yourself 

I would rate mentoring as one of the most effective activities I’ve done to push myself to achieve my potential. The advice, guidance, and networks I have been exposed to through Maddie and my other mentors has been invaluable in my career; the opportunity to give back as a mentor has been a rewarding experience that’s made my career that much more satisfying. 

I do think that the things I’ve learnt about mentoring apply whether you find your mentors informally or through a formal mentoring programme. In both, it’s essential that there’s chemistry between you and that both of you get something from the arrangement. 

To that point, the final advice I would offer to others who are, or are considering becoming, mentors would be this: be clear about why you’re being a mentor. It’s essential that you understand the value you’re offering a mentee – and that they agree that’s the value they’re looking for – to avoid misunderstandings. 

Finally, make sure you enjoy it! I have found mentoring to be a wonderful experience. The feeling I get when I see Rhiannon at Connor handling extremely complex projects with deftness and skill, or the feeling I get when I see Amy growing in confidence in the Connor family, is incredible. It’s a wonderful thing to help raise someone up to achieve their potential.  

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