Why it’s time to rethink mentoring

Earlier this month, the writer Fleur Britten wrote a feature in the Sunday Times Style about the rise of a new kind of female mentor, the ‘cheerleader’: a woman who champions other women, but does so in a more ‘casual, organic and fluid’ way than the comparatively formal relationship offered by a professional mentor.

I have to admit to reading the article with mixed feelings. Part of our thinking and Women in Leadership programme at AGL includes encouraging more positive relationships between women, (not just between men and women) in a bid to further gender equality.  We don’t just think there’s a business case for promoting more women; we think it’s the right thing to do. So, the idea of an enthusiastic cheerleader is undoubtedly a brilliant and inspiring one.

And yet, and yet, I couldn’t help but read the piece with an underlying sense of irony. In the early days of my own career in women’s magazines – about a decade ago – the working environment was all but toxic, thanks in part, to the all but exclusively female team.

Unlike my time at a girls’ school, where competition had been channeled into academic curiosity and we were celebrated as individuals – but also rewarded for being part of the team – I soon realised that the rules of the game were now different.

At one particular women’s magazine, the competition was insidious. Ideas nervously put forward to a line leader were appropriated as their own; conversations tailed off as I approached the photocopier; public shaming was part and parcel of the job. And yes, there were tears in the loos and as much as much as Friday evening brought relief, Sunday night felt like a death knell.

I know from friends that my experience was by no means uncommon. Too often, ambitious young girls were something to be feared – as upstarts and job stealers.

Aside from affecting my mental and physical health and happiness, I admit that the quality of my work took a nosedive. I wanted to be a journalist and writer – but not if it meant staying in an oppressive all-female environment. So, I didn’t.

Since then, I’ve actively sought out projects, teams and roles that see sense in men and women working alongside each other. I’ve learned more, found myself involved in more interesting (if unexpected) types of work, and frankly, I’ve had more fun.

I’ve also seen positive change more generally. Women have championed, advised, supported and guided me. I’d like to think that experience has also helped me think about how I interact with other women too.

When working with female leaders as part of our Special Advisory division, we dedicate time to thinking about talent – of all kinds – differently. Working with one client in response to the World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Report ahead of this year’s Davos summit, we were horrified (but perhaps not surprised), to see that, as a global society, we’re still 202 years away from achieving gender parity in the workforce. So maybe, we all need to start thinking about gender, diversity, talent and leadership in a new more ‘organic and fluid way’. Just like those cheerleaders we began with.

In this constantly changing world, hierarchical notions of the new junior being ‘below’ us, or the partner being ‘above’ are outdated. The most successful leaders and indeed the most successful organisations understand that talent, innovation and creativity come from many directions.

The truth is that we can all learn from each other – always. As one of our AGL ambassadors so rightly said to me a few months ago:

Always hire people smarter than you

I’ll end on a full disclosure: I know from personal experience that mentoring or cheerleading isn’t necessarily always about building female-to-female relationships. In fact, it’s no coincidence that my own greatest cheerleader was our founder, Anthony Gordon Lennox.

We met quite by chance; I was looking for a new professional challenge, not a mentor.  As it turned out, I got both.

Throughout the two years I worked with him before his death, he was unfailingly generous in his advice, trusted me (probably unwisely so) with tasks that were well beyond my then ability, introduced me to a wide group of fascinating and wildly successful people and let me down gently when I messed up.

As anyone who met Ant will know, his butterfly mind would flit effortlessly from idea to idea, producing 50 or more intentions in the space of an hour. I’d leave meetings or hang up from calls with notes scribbled in notebooks, on napkins, or up my arm – just so I could keep pace with, and a record of, his brilliant (if sometimes bonkers) plans.

We all need someone who listens, needles out our real strengths and challenges us to take the next step, the next promotion or the next leap.

Ant made me laugh, built my confidence and (I hope) made me better at my job. Which makes me think that beyond the ongoing ‘gender discussion,’ we need a new, more open mindset about how we’re all to get on with doing the things we’re good at and love doing.

A cheerleader or cheerleadee could come from anywhere – even the most unlikely of experiences or places.

 

I think, just maybe, if we’re ready to accept support and cheerlead others, the results may not only surprise us as individuals and businesses – but as a society overall.