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Mentoring: Who’s looking after your career?

29 Mar 2017 By Jo Faragher

When everyone from business moguls to music icons has a mentor, shouldn’t HR professionals follow suit?

The concept of mentoring should need little introduction to the average HR professional. They’re often the individuals charged with introducing mentoring and making sure it delivers value throughout the company. So why is it that they so often forget they might need mentors too?

“HR professionals haven’t yet cottoned on to the potential power of mentoring,” says Carole Gaskell, director of coaching and leadership consultancy Full Potential Group. “It can really increase your network, and a proactive mentor will be able to introduce you to people and areas you might not have had access to.”

As HR’s remit becomes more complex, the benefits of having a mentor increase. Nicky Little, head of consulting at leadership specialist Cirrus, believes her mentor helped her cope with a period of major transformation when she worked in people development for a large retailer. She says: “My role was very focused on influencing key stakeholders, getting colleagues on board with change, challenging thinking and changing mindsets. My mentor had navigated a similar path during her career so I found it very useful to bounce ideas off her. She helped me reframe my thinking, develop resilience and remain positive – and I in turn enabled others to do the same.”

Drawing on someone’s experience from within the HR function can be useful – particularly if they have undergone something similar. They can also help identify where there may be skills gaps preventing you from progressing in your career. Skills audits are an important tool for Martine Robins, director of the Woking branch of consulting firm The HR Dept, when she supports people via a local CIPD mentoring programme. “I often work with people – usually women – who have reached some sort of crossroads in their career and want to progress to the next stage,” she says.

“Perhaps they’ve worked in various HR roles and have got stuck. We look at what’s important to them, where the gaps in their knowledge are and the challenges facing them. I’m a generalist by background so can offer advice on most things.”

Two-thirds of CIPD branches now offer mentoring services where HR professionals are matched with other members, and feedback suggests the process is often transformative for both parties. “Being a mentor can greatly enhance your career because you learn from your mentee too,” says Joanne Davis, CIPD branch and membership development manager, who points out the process needn’t be daunting. “Sometimes people think there’s a lot to it, but you’re not going in cold – there’s a lot of support out there.”

Sally Bailey, former CEO of clothing brand White Stuff, who now takes on board and advisory roles, has seen first hand the importance of broadening your horizons when choosing a mentor. “It’s crucial to look outside your own role or it can turn into an echo chamber,” she says. “There’s value in hearing from someone who’s had similar issues, or perhaps even failed at something, in a different industry, so they can give a fresh view.”

Bailey mentors 30-year-old entrepreneur Rosie Warin, who runs engagement consultancy Kin&Co, and one of the key stumbling blocks Warin has encountered is managing people. “When you’re growing a business from a start-up this can be one of the toughest issues,” says Bailey. “[I’ve helped Rosie with] things like getting people to work together well, finding ways to part company with them if it’s not working, or finding a different role that works for them.”

The important thing is to know what you’re looking to achieve from having a mentor – simply signing up to be mentored because it’s on offer at your company or because you feel it’s the right thing to do will not necessarily guarantee results. “When someone finds the right mentor it’s obvious, but chasing or forcing that connection rarely works,” says Carmel O’Reilly, an L&D consultant and career coach. “The often-repeated advice is if you want to scale the corporate ladder, you need to find a mentor. I believe this sends the wrong message. People are searching for a mentor and that can become the equivalent of waiting for the Prince Charming who will push them up the career ladder, but this creates too much dependency on others.”

Robins has also seen this from the mentors’ side: “You’ve got to want to do it. If you’re in a business where people have been pushed into it and are not inclined to share knowledge, or feel like they don’t have much to share, it’s unlikely the mentee will get much out of that relationship.”

Even the best matched mentor and mentee on paper can fail to hit it off in real life – personal chemistry is a huge factor in the success of the relationship, says O’Reilly. If you fail to gel, it’s important to be honest. “Sometimes there’s not an honest agreement or discussion about expectations at the outset, or people take on mentors they don’t enjoy spending time with,” says Gaskell. “There can be a chemistry mismatch where the relationship is either overly comfortable so you’re not challenged, or you’re afraid to speak up. Neither party gets value out of that.”

Blocking out time in an already hectic schedule can be tough, but it’s essential, although technology means a face-to-face meeting at a set time is not always necessary – tools such as Skype or even WhatsApp enable mentors and mentees to see how each other are doing or answer questions on the hoof. “Often, HR professionals get caught up in urgent everyday activities and find it difficult to prioritise what may seem like a luxury,” Little says. “But the simple act of stepping away from the day-to-day brings new perspective. This is particularly important during periods of transition, when everything is changing around you and you need to adapt.”

Having a mentor need not be a one-time thing, either, and you can even have multiple mentors at the same time. There’s an increasing trend to seek a ‘portfolio’ of mentors depending on your particular career need at that point – perhaps you need temporary support while managing a merger, for example, or have board presentations coming up and want to hear from someone who’s been there and done that.

Tricia Driver, UK talent diversity and inclusion lead at technology and consulting firm Capgemini, has benefited from both short and long-term mentoring. “I believe people come into your life for a reason, so you can end up having a short but very valuable mentoring relationship,” she says. “I met a past mentor as part of a leadership development programme and he helped me with something specific I needed to achieve. I also have a longer-term mentor – someone I go back to informally, where I can dip in and out of the relationship when needed.”

Those who have gained from the mentoring process often go on to be mentors themselves, and the learning process does not stop there. “I don’t know which relationship I get more value out of – mentor or mentee. It’s such a rewarding relationship to mentor someone,” says Driver. “As an HR professional, you don’t always get to see such immediate results – someone growing before your eyes.”

Emily Bain, co-founder of recruitment firm Bain and Gray and a mentor to start-up businesses, says the trick to being a good mentor is to break down your mentee’s goals into manageable chunks. “The most important skill to have as a mentor is to listen. You can distil what they’re saying into what’s fundamental, and tackle it piece by piece,” she says.

Ultimately, the relationship needs to have mutual respect to succeed – forcing ideas on to someone will likely backfire. “Only give advice if your mentee asks for it,” says Gaskell. “Just because one course of action worked well for you, it does not mean it will for them. Also, there’s a presumption that mentors only share what worked. Sharing your mistakes can have just as much, if not more, value for someone because you’re showing what you’ve learned.” After all, when it comes to advancing your career in HR, knowing someone has overcome similar obstacles and survived could be the thing that makes all the difference.

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