Opinion: Picking a mentor
Picking a mentor
Microsoft’s global marketing development & strategy director, Scott Allen discusses how to pick a mentor, what leadership teams are looking for and top tips on how to get the most out of a mentor relationship.
How do you pick a mentor?
Choosing a mentor can be difficult. I would always advise a marketer who wants to work with a mentor from within their organisation that they select someone with a different role. I’ve found working with finance directors or HR managers to be beneficial. For example, if we are targeting HR managers in the finance sector with one of our marketing campaigns, being able to check the messaging against a HR person and getting their views on the key issues that affect them can make a huge difference to the success of a campaign.
To succeed, I personally have benefitted from securing insight from many different people. If you have a mentoring relationship with someone who has the same job role as you within the same company, you will end up talking about your day job and specific details rather than stepping back and getting a different perspective on your challenges. I’ve always found that mentors from outside of Microsoft have been great for helping me progress my career; excel in tough situations; and address issues or opportunities on the horizon. For example, I’ve found that working with an external CTO has been incredibly rewarding. They don’t understand every aspect of marketing but can give you advice and coaching regarding breaking down complex situations, next actions and prioritisation. I’ve benefited hugely from these types of relationships both as a young exec and as a more experienced marketer.
Leadership and marketing teams are increasingly looking to reverse-mentoring and peer-to-peer initiatives to solving issues but are there any disadvantages?
From a personal experience I’ve only seen benefits from mentoring. Both peer to peer and reverse mentoring don’t have to be cumbersome formal processes put in place by HR. It’s great if your company does have an official programme, but if it doesn’t it’s not essential.
I’ve worked in places that didn’t have official mentoring programmes, so I’ve had to take the initiative and organise it for myself. At Microsoft, when I was UK CMO, I was fortunate to be a sponsor of our early in career programme for marketing. I helped bring together all the marketers, including product marketers in their first one or two years of employment (including apprentices) helping them improve their skills, learn what it’s like to work in a company like Microsoft and how to develop their role. By fostering a community, you can support each other – I’ve also learnt a lot from the group as well. I would advise fellow execs to do something similar, if you can.
Do you agree that reverse mentoring can be particularly useful when it comes to progressing your career?
I completely agree, for instance, how millennials think about their careers is very different to how I thought about my career. I very much had a staircase career, where I moved through the ranks to get to a senior position. While many millennials and gen-z’s today have ‘spaghetti careers’ – moving around departments and sectors. They may well get to senior position just in a different way than people did traditionally. They also often have a lot of interests outside of work. For instance, they could be a food blogger in the evening and a marketing manager in their day job.
I’ve found using reverse mentoring in these types of career conversations is useful as it allows you to see things from different angles and can help you spot things that might not be obvious in a traditional corporate environment. It has really helped me develop and learn which you should never stop doing regardless what experience you have or role level you are at.
Do you have five top tips you would give mentees looking for a mentor as part of a reverse mentoring process?
- Ask your manager if there is a program that exists and if not, would they support you doing this in an informal way initially.
- Ask yourself what you want to get out of doing it. Too often, mentoring takes place and both people are not clear why they are really doing it and more often than not it fizzles out.
- Don't go into it thinking you have no value to offer as you are early in career. This is not true; there is a lot of value the person will get regardless if they have 5, 10, 20 or 30-years’ experience
- Prepare for the connection you have. Too often people see it in their diary and just turn up. Neither person will get any value from it. Prep does not need to be heavy but be clear with what you want to contribute and get out of the mentoring connection.
- Don't fall into the trap of having the standard one hour every month approach. Be agile and flexible around when it takes place and the format (face to face in a cafe, walking etc). Plus, supplement that with a quick IM or phone call in-between.
What about an exec looking to develop a reverse mentoring process?
- Be clear on where your blind spot is and where you want to learn more.
- Consider picking more than one person to reverse mentor with, if time permits.
- Be clear with the reverse mentor why you think it is a good idea and what you will learn from it.
- Make the person you are reverse mentoring with comfortable interacting with you as they will be nervous and will be conscious of how senior you are and that they may be judged or are being reviewed. Emphasise how beneficial doing this will be for you.
- Know when the mentoring is coming to a natural conclusion, inform the reverse mentor in the right way but don't cut off connection - instead shift from a more formal mentoring approach to more informal connections or discussions.
Mentoring is incredibly powerful. Set yourself clear objectives to work to and take ten minutes to prepare before every meeting. Another thought to remember is that sometimes a mentoring experience comes to a natural end, as you reach your objectives and that’s fine. Meeting up with your mentor for the sake of it isn’t productive for both of you. I wouldn’t advise you to turn these relationships off for good, instead change them to informal relationships. Having a quick coffee every three or four weeks or just talking in a corridor can be beneficial.
If you’re interested in following in the steps of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey or Richard Branson who all regard their mentors as being critical in their career development. Or if you’re a senior marketer looking to develop talent within your marketing ranks, CIM can help support you. There are free mentoring articles online and more information here. CIM offers members, a comprehensive mentoring scheme, accessible through MyCIM, which matches aspiring marketing professionals to experienced mentors from a range of sectors.
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