Bridging the experience gap

We are living in revolutionary times; it may not feel like it, because there are no street executions to witness, but it’s a revolution all right.

The Internet is the cause: but it’s been the catalyst for the radical and irreversible changes that are happening at lightening speed all around us.

The arrival on the business scene of young, clever and exciting new management is a breath of fresh air for the business community. The problem is the emergence of a very real experience gap. There are bags of new ideas, but the lack of experience in dealing successfully with the challenges that managing a business can create is a serious problem.

The most gifted creators of business ideas are – for understandable reasons – often out of their depth when dealing with the financial and managerial demands of an expanding company. Responsibility to shareholders, venture capitalists, dealing with bankers and conducting board meetings are just some of the things that can overwhelm a creative thinker.

A partial solution to this problem is the non-executive director. More recently, we have seen an animal called a “board adviser” imported from the US.

This has extended the role of the non-executive and made it less formal. Now the trend is towards something potentially even more effective – the mentor.

A mentor is someone hired by a company to work exclusively and privately with its top manager. The role is much more subtle, supportive and potential-enhancing than a regular management consultant.

The best reference point for most people would be the role John Harvey Jones played in his Trouble Shooter series – only that was far more public and deliberately critical.

The mentor role simply provides the chief executive with a wise, been-there-seen-it supportive presence, whom any burden can be shared with – everything is essentially private and takes place in a “safe space”.

The area in which this is most likely to take off is the communications industry. It is a young person’s business and long may that continue. Ideas are freshest before the fear of failure creeps in. Experience can be a deterrent to creativity, so it’s important that this innocence be left intact and given the freedom to fly. But the younger manager often needs help to achieve a rounded performance and the right help can be difficult to find.

The ambitious young managing director may be ready for the fight, but it’s lonely at the top and when an issue arises that’s hot to handle, a wise, cool and safe-to-speak-to mentor could be a God-send. This is where an objective, experienced individual would help, in strictest confidence.

What makes a good mentor? Mentoring skills aren’t always developed with age and experience – many do not have the listening gene, some are too cynical or judgmental, others just like to talk.

But get the chemistry right and it could be the dream ticket. The best mentor will know from experience that the wisest decisions are those that are true to the person making them and will coach towards that end.

Clearly, in a world where company directors are beginning to look younger than policemen, mentoring could catch on. It’s the antithesis to the old cliché that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. You could now say that those who can, do, and those who already have, mentor.

Caroline Marland is a partner at Potential Squared and formerly managing director of the Guardian and Observer

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