Leadership lessons: female mentorship - Brought to you by NatWest

Leadership lessons: female mentorship - Brought to you by NatWest

Thursday, 07 March 2019

Many UK businesswomen report that having a female mentor would be advantageous. Whether it’s succeeding in a male-dominated industry or dealing with gender discrimination, someone who has encountered and resolved the same issues and challenges can be especially helpful.


There’s a big difference between getting a close friend or family member to help you with your business and finding the right mentor to progress your business to the next level. We look at how to find a mentor that’s right for you and how it could benefit your business.


India Wardrop, serial entrepreneur and founder of Delta Suite, which provides business support for entrepreneurs, says a mentor can suit a number of roles. “A trusted mentor can be a good sounding board for seasoned advice/counsel when you’re going through uncharted territory,” she says, “whether that’s facing management challenges or determining which strategy to pursue.


“He/she can be a great alternative to speak to outside the company mix because they’re looking at the situation with a fresh, unbiased perspective and with a view to helping you succeed,” Wardrop says.

“Often, it’s useful simply to have a confidant who is a good listener and can help you vet your ideas and/or your issues; it can be challenging to be that vulnerable with co-workers when you’re the one at the helm. A good mentor will be someone who will give you honest feedback when others can’t or won’t.”


Wardrop also believes experience counts for a lot when looking for the right mentor. “Ideally you want someone who’s ‘done it’ before,” she says. “Mentors who’ve been through similar business challenges can know what pitfalls lie ahead and help you avoid them. Or can help you navigate through challenging times by helping you avoid the mistakes that they made. They can help promote your business by suggesting directions or strategies that you’ve not yet thought of. The key is finding the right ones, having the right relationship with them and knowing when and how to access them best.”


What makes a good mentor

Finding the right mentor for your business is a two-way process, says entrepreneur, artist and designer Jo Ham, best known for her brand of design-led homewares HAM. “Start by seeking out someone you look up to and are inspired by, who also has the relevant experience or skills for your business,” she says. “Better still, they have successfully navigated a similar career journey to you, meaning they can relate to the opportunities and challenges you’re likely to be facing.


“It’s then crucial that they have a real passion and interest in what you do,” says Ham. “I’ve found tailored mentoring to be most effective and for this it’s so important whoever is advising you takes the time to really get under the skin of your business and understand what makes you tick.


“And it’s vital that you have a good personal rapport. This should be someone with whom you can be frank, confide in and willing to share your best and worst bits with. You’re also highly likely to be acting on their advice, so it’s important the relationship is built on trust.”


“Mentors who’ve been through similar business challenges can know what pitfalls lie ahead and help you avoid them”


India Wardrop, founder, Delta Suite


Ham worked with her mentor for just over a year to help “fine-tune” the brand, evolve her product offer overseas and develop short- and long-term commercial plans for the business. “We met regularly to work on my business strategy and covered everything from operations and staffing to brand values and innovation. I also used these sessions as a sounding board for new projects and collaboration opportunities, gaining practical advice, frank feedback and confidence boosts as needed.”

Jess MacIntyre, co-founder of marketing business Mac & Moore, says a mentor can help a mentee in many ways, from listening to new ideas and ways of working, to help building confidence and resilience in the workplace.


MacIntyre is herself a mentor, primarily to freelancers. She says her mentees ask her about all sorts, ranging from building confidence to learning to be more efficient and smart with their time and how to best handle their personal and business finances.


Female mentors

Maxine Thompson, founder of PolkaPants, which designs and sells trousers for female chefs, uses a network of strong female mentors to help her.


“Before and during our launch, I had a mentor who works at London College of Fashion (LCF) as the subject director for marketing and retail, Rosemary Varley. She worked with me to develop the initial business plans, pricing and launch strategies. It was incredible to work with someone who has that much experience, from a practical and academic background as well.


“I also know a couple of incredible women in America who both founded their own workwear labels (a few years ahead of me). They’re great for practical advice and personal motivation. It's really important when you have a small business that you have people you can talk to, whether it’s for practical advice or just a general chat. When your business is in the early days, you can feel lonely and feel as though you’re the only one having specific problems.


“Talking to these women (and other small business owners) makes you realise that everyone goes through the same issues, albeit on different scales, and no matter how big or small your business is, you’ll always face challenges and have your good and bad days – it’s refreshing to hear that you’re not alone.”


Finding your mentor

There are three easy steps to finding your ideal mentor, according to Melitta Campbell, business coach and mentor for female entrepreneurs:


  1. Be proactive. Don’t wait for someone to come to you. Understand that a mentoring relationship is usually short term, between three to six months. Be clear about what you need to gain over this time in order to confidently raise your game, deepen your impact on the business and take your next career move. Then, approach the person who you feel is best placed to help with this specific issue, explain what you want and why you would like to work with them.
  2. Take steps to tackle your challenge. You want to be able to show your potential mentor that you’re willing to put in the hard work and that they’ll be offering you a leg-up and not a crutch. If your potential mentor can clearly see how their skills and experiences will help you, they may be very happy to agree to a mentoring relationship.
  3. Don’t shy away from approaching senior executives. They’ll often see mentoring as part of their role and responsibilities and, if they don’t feel they’re able to help you, they could suggest someone else they feel is more suited to you and your needs. Remember, if you don’t ask the answer is always no.


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