Postgraduate Guide: Guiding light

Finding the right mentor can give a valuable new perspective on your career development.

Working together

There has never been a more exciting time to work in marketing, mostly due to the growing importance of digital and the pace of change. But, says Laura Hopes, digital brand marketer and Chartered Institute of Marketing mentor, such speedy innovation brings with it challenges. “Marketers can no longer consult textbooks or case studies to find an answer or inspiration. Young marketers therefore need to have the confidence to experiment with social channels, user experiences and online journeys, and this confidence can be difficult to muster when their own experience is limited.”

This is where a marketing mentor is invaluable, acting as an experienced sounding board for the mentee’s ideas and ambitions, says Hopes. “We will not always provide the answer, but we will empower the mentee to make the decisions that are necessary for them to achieve their aspirations.”

Why work with a mentor?

A mentor can help with a number of aspects within the marketing role, including functional, everyday problems as well as longer-term career issues. Many formal programmes have mentors that offer an hour and a half of their time every month for a year, and this arrangement can be continued in the long-term depending on what that mentor and mentee agree.

Working with a number of mentors who have a wide range of experience has worked well for Inderveer Tatla, head of consumer experience at self-service locker specialist, myByBox. Tatla is responsible for growing the consumer arm of myByBox, and says one of her mentors – Katie Vanneck-Smith, chief marketing officer of News International – focused on specific skills to help her to achieve this. “We spoke about how I could grow a market base and how other brands had done it without taking out mass advertising campaigns around the UK. Katie gave me practical advice on using earned assets and paid for assets. I was new to that at the time, so from a purely business and marketing growth point of view, she had that expertise to share.”

Developing a strong relationship with a mentor can bring many benefits, according to Alberto Rinon-Caballero, brand director for urology at Astellas Pharma Europe. Rinon-Caballero, who has been both a mentor and a mentee in his organisation, says: “If the relationsƒhip and setting is right, over the short-term the mentee gets useful advice to help them in their day-to-day job, and over the mid-term they get support and steering to help with their ongoing career development.”

How can a mentor help?

A good mentor will help a mentee realise their full potential and concentrate on their strengths, leveraging their skills and focusing on what makes them stand out from their peers. It is something Virginia Barnes, global head of brands at Aviva, says was one of her biggest lessons from working with a mentor through The Marketing Academy, of which Marketing Week is a founding partner.

She says: “I can be self-deprecating sometimes, and [my mentor] said, ‘Look at what you have got here. I bet when you walk into a room you get the conversation going, and I bet you’re the one who translates when two people on different sides of the table can’t see eye to eye’.” It helped Barnes realise that she had different, but equally valuable, skills to other people. “Having that perspective on things helps you see yourself in the round.”

Access to a different point of view, whether it relates to a strategic or practical problem, can aid personal development. Maria Betés, senior brand manager at Johnnie Walker, says: “I found it invaluable to take a challenge I was facing to a senior marketer to get a fresh perspective from someone not directly involved in the situation. Their honest and open feedback helped me to define my approach to the issue I was facing.”

Betés said mentoring was particularly valuable when considering her future career. “My mentor played a key part when I was deciding on a change of roles. They were a great sounding board during the preparation and decision-making process.” Less experienced marketers are arguably more focused on the daily challenges of delivering against set objectives and meeting targets, and a mentor can help to show some long-term clarity on how to start moving in the right direction.”

Tatla benefited from this when working with mentor Kristof Fahy, chief marketing officer at William Hill. “He made me think about where I wanted to end up and what the journey would look like. He thinks about how you are personally aligned to a business and believes that you can’t be authentic if you don’t know who you are. That was compelling. He taught me to think about a three-year vision and what would stop me getting there.”

However, different styles and personalities will mean that some pairings are more effective than others. Hopes advises mentees to be “open-minded about who the most appropriate mentor might be. A senior mentor from a similar industry may seem the most logical choice. However, the mentee may find that mentor intimidating and so open and honest discussions will be difficult.”

Barnes believes chemistry is important: “It’s about people you get on with and whose words really chime with you. You have a more natural connection with some people than others.” But she says working with someone you do not particularly get on with can also be valuable to get a different perspective.

Not all companies with mentoring programmes get it right because they do not achieve a good mentor-mentee match. Rinon-Caballero says: “I’ve worked in companies where they have adopted an ‘official mentorship’. Often, the matching process didn’t consider the personalities or if the parties were a good match. It was an expected requirement of the job rather than encouraged as a part of the mentors’ and mentees’ career progression; the results weren’t always effective.”

Getting the most out of a session

Finding the right mentor is only the beginning. Tatla says: “It’s about going away and thinking about what a mentor has said and doing something about it.”

Rinon-Caballero agrees, and adds: “The role of a mentor is not to give you all the answers, since ultimately it’s up to you to shape your future according to your personality and expectations.”

This means doing homework before meetings. Tatla advises mentees to research the mentor’s background to better understand the context of their advice. Deciding which areas or specific problems to discuss before each session is also advisable to maximise the time available.

Preparing to be analysed, quizzed and questioned without getting defensive is equally important because the mentor is not there to validate what the mentee is doing but to challenge them to reach their full potential. “That is what a mentor does – probes and asks searching questions,” says Tatla. “Be thick-skinned; it’s not a personal attack on you, but understand what is being highlighted and think about it. It really helped me to take that approach.”

Aviva’s Barnes agrees, adding that mentoring is not a “soft pillow” to tell you that you are marvellous. “They encourage you to be better, which implies some sort of change or reshaping. If you don’t want to be challenged, don’t get a mentor.”

But mentees should consider the advice carefully and question how it relates to them, particularly when working with several mentors who may contradict each other. Tatla recalls: “One said ‘Don’t start your own business,
you’ll be poor the whole time.’ That’s not a fact, that’s an opinion. You have to digest everything you’ve been told and work out what you want to keep.”

Case study: Hugo, Rodger-Brown, Co-founder of social platform YunoJuno

Last year, Hugo Rodger-Brown ran a centre for the Young Rewired State, an independent, mentored network of young programmers. He has also mentored developers through the Graduate Developer Community meet-a-mentor scheme. His advice to mentors:

There is no formula for who would make a good mentor. It is an entirely personal relationship and, like all good relationships, it depends on both parties putting in the time and effort. The only prerequisite for being someone’s mentor is that you have their respect.

Find out what motivates your mentee. Your goal as a mentor should be to allow your mentee to reach their goals and make the most of their potential, and to do that you need to find out what excites them.

Listen first, talk later. Your advice has to be relevant and for that to happen you first need to find out more about your mentee.

Speak from experience. Trotting out something you heard at a management day is not helpful; mentees want to hear about your real-life experiences.

Mentors need a few ‘war stories’. Listening to someone who has never encountered a setback is not inspiring, it is dispiriting.

Mentoring has nothing to do with age. The traditional model of a wise elder teaching the young warrior is a false one. You can be mentored by your peers if you feel they have something to teach you.

Do not expect anything in return. Being a mentor can be tremendously rewarding in the long run but you should not start out expecting to get anything out of it – it’s all about ‘paying it forward’.

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