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Making the most of your mentor

Street League CEO Matt Stevenson-Dodd has had numerous mentors during his career. He shares his advice for making the most of mentoring.

Could you tell us a little about your mentoring experiences?

At the moment I have a mentor called Alex who came through Impetus, but I've had five mentors in my career - I'm quite a big believer in mentoring.

I've always been in senior leadership roles when I've had my mentors, albeit at different size organizations, so it's been about things from HR issues to strategy. I've had various mentors at various points in my career, and they've grown in seniority as I've gone up in my career, so Alex is the most senior guy I've ever had as a mentor.

What have been the main benefits of mentoring for you?

Having somebody you can trust who's outside the organization, who you can go to with a range of issues and get a completely different perspective. Somebody who'll challenge you. I always start my mentoring relationships now by telling them exactly what I'd like from them: that I want them to be honest, to challenge me, and if they can to take a different viewpoint from my own, so that I can get a sounding board of another side of an argument. I think that helps me to think around all sides of something and then make a decision. You can do that in a safe way with a mentor, whereas with a chair or boss you've got to be careful what you say. A mentor gives you a chance to try those arguments out.

As a mentee, how do you make the most of a mentoring opportunity?

I think the way you set up your mentoring is really important. I don't want somebody to tell me how graet I am, I want someone to challenge me.

You've got to understand that your mentor isn't there to be your best friend. You shouldn't go out and try to impress them with how great you are. It's a very special type of relationship. You become friends, but you've got to maintain that contract, if you like, and be honest with them and honest with yourself and tell them all the bad bits as well. Otherwise you're not going to get anything out of it.

And sometimes it's really hard to hear. I had a difficult conversation with a colleague, and I went to my mentor and spent 15 or 20 minutes offloading about how bad this person was, and Alex just turned round and said 'You realize this was entirely your fault?', which wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear. But what he was saying was, if I'd prepared the figures that I should have presented to this guy and had all my arguments in place then none of it would have happened. And he was exactly right. It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but it was the truth, and he helped me move on.

You've got to be prepared to reflect on what they've said to you. Also, I think it's important that you don't feel like you have to do what they say. You're still in charge of what you do. I remember my first mentor was quite a radical guy, he was quite a hard business guy, and when I was runnning my first charity it just felt a little too extreme for me. But he was great to run things past and see what he would do. Sometimes I would do things he suggested and sometimes I wouldn't. And he would always say to me, 'You only take a handful of what I say,' and I would tell him that's really important, because I need to apply it in my way to the situation that I'm facing.

I think it's important that you maintain that you're still in control of the decisions you're making as the mentee. The mentor is there to give a different viewpoint, but I don't think they should ever try to force you to do what they suggest.

Has there been any friction in your mentoring relationships?

I've never had friction, in five mentors I've had. They've said things I didn't want to hear, but you have to understand that that's what it's going to be like, and that's where the real value is. Your family aren't going to tell you that because they love you; your boss is probably only going to tell you then when they want to get rid of you. So to have somebody who can tell it how it is is quite useful. And I think if you're managing a charity, especially an organization like Street League that's doing really well, there are loads of people who want to tell you how great you are and how well the organization's doing, but there's not a lot who'll tell you how bad you are. And I think you need a balance, really. You need someone to tell you how bad you are from time to time.

For people working in a charity like Street League, is there particular value to having a mentor from the world of business?

Yes - people who've seen the world from a different perspective. Street League runs as a social enterprise, it runs as a business. And lots of people join Street League from a social point of view - they're here to change lives. I think sometimes the running of the charity can conflict a bit with the social part of what they want to do, so people coming from a business perspective can help with that side of how we run. For Future Leaders, that's essential, because if you want to go into a management role you're going to need to know all financial side, marketing, pitching to businesses and sponsors... The whole business side is absolutely essential.

But that can work both ways, because business people mentoring can get an idea of what it's like to work for a charity, and the fact that as well as trying to survive and make a profit to put towards more good outcomes, what you're also trying to do is deliver those social outcomes as well. So you've got two masters, really. You've got the financial side, but you've got to achieve social outcomes. Otherwise you're just another business, you're just turning over money. You've got to actually change lives. Yuo've got to try and keep it in balance.

So I think for business people mentoring, it's interesting to see that added dimension, that it's not just about shareholder value, it's about achieveing stakeholder value as well. It's about how you change lives.

I think that the crossovers are quite huge. And what's always amazed me is that when you get down to it, the problems in business and the problems in charities are pretty much very similar, and how you deal with them is similar. So that's been quite a nice revelation: we're facing similar problems as organizatinos around growth and staff development, strategy, HR.

Has being mentored made you a better manager?

Yes. I think having the experience of being mentored is very good. How you like to be managed is how you probably should be a manager. You try to draw on those experiences. I found that everywhere I've gone and introduced mentoring, it's been very useful for the senior team, and now we're extending it with the Future Leaders programme.

The other thing that I really think is valuable about mentoring is that it's not just about the job that you're doing. There's a lot about your personal development. I've found that it makes a big difference having a mentor on your side who, again, is not your boss. If you're great at your job, your boss wants you to stay, don't they? They're never going to talk about you leaving the organization. To have a mentor onside who can say, look, you've been in this place for five years and now you really want to look at doing something else. How can you further your career? Who do you need to network with? Actually having that sort of person on your side is very useful.

And I say this with the full knowledge that I might be encouraging twelve people to leave our organization, but I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, because hopefully if Street League can provide those opportunities then people will stay. I want people who are ambitious and want to move on and do something, and hopefully we can provide for them in our organization, but the people who will change the world are the people who will want to move on. So having a mentor who will challenge you on that and broaden your horizon is very useful as well. Sometimes it's better to leave an organization, get wider experience and come back than to stay and get that tight vision that you get when you're in an organization. Somebody seeing that on your behalf is useful as well. It opens up your aspirations, and I think that's really important.

How do you get started with a new mentor?

I always start by saying I like mentors who challenge me. I always make a point of saying that. I want you to be blunt and honest and open with me, because that's what helps me personally, but that's my style. I think the honesty thing is important, trust and honesty that you can develop quite quickly.

I always talk about chemistry with a person: you know whether you're going to get on with a person and trust them really quite quickly. Then it comes down to how well you prepare. You need to not just turn up and hope you'll have something to talk about. You need to turn up with two or three key, meaty issues you'd like to discuss.

Do you set longer term goals?

I think in my mentoring we've naturally found themes that emerge, and they can't be tackled straight away. I'm in a different position because it involves organizational change, and some of that is quite long-term, but my mentor Alex is just tenacious about one thing, about improving our evaluation and monitoring. He comes from the banking sector, he's obsessed with it, which is great because he keeps bringing me back to it. And we've made some great achievements on it.

I mentor three start-up chief executives in social enterprises, and with all of them it's finance, you have to really push them on making sure they've got the finances in order, cash flow sorted, all of those start-up mistakes you make. It's interesting that those themes come back. You see them again and again, and having a mentor who doesn't let them get away is useful.

How long should it last? How do you end the relationship?

What I've found is that in my career, the time has come when I've left a job or changed something, and the mentoring relationship has changed then. It's when I've stepped up that it's come to a natural end. So I've never had to say, 'I'm sorry, I don't want you to be my mentor anymore', and neither has my mentor had to say that to me, so I think I've been quite fortunate. What I would say is that I do regularly check with my mentors that they're still happy to continue, and give them the opt-out, because I feel it's really important that both sides feel that they can walk away. It shouldn't be a chore.

Any other practical advice?

Prepare well. Really think about what you want to get out of the mentoring. And then be prepared to get a curveball. If it's good, I think it always challenges you and you come back feeling you've been through the mill, and it's over the next few days that you can start to reflect on it, and that's where you get the real learning.

So be prepared, but don't expect to feel prepared?

Yes, exactly. And don't expect to come away with a lightbulb moment. Some of the things are thematic and go on over months or even years, and a good mentor will help you bring those out. I think good mentoring is not about telling people what to do: it's about trying to help them find solutions.

And as a mentee, it must be tempting to let your mentor tell you what to do.

Yes. There's a line between advice and 'This is what you should do, go and do it.' It comes back to what I said at the beginning: I like mentors who will take a different viewpoint from you, just to explore the argument.

Is there anything you can do as a mentee to make sure you stay in charge?

I think a lot of that is on the mentor. They've got to be careful not to do it, and I always keep reminding my mentees that they don't have to take my advice, any bit of it. They can completely discard it. They should do what they think is right, and I make a big deal of that when we first start.

It's really important how it's set up, and it's worth checking back over those ground rules after three months or six months to make sure you're still following them.