The qualities needed to lead effectively in a digital, interconnected world are quite distinct. Leaders today – in business, politics and communities – must be able to inspire, to motivate and to engage. In an environment where information is readily and instantly available and everyone with anything interesting to say can be heard, power is no longer bestowed, but must be earned.
This is a big change from anything we have been used to. After, literally, centuries of command-and-control, many leaders are wrestling with how to develop a new approach, seeing the need for fresh thinking but unsure about the practical steps. There is no playbook to consult, but I believe mentoring is a great place to start developing a more empathetic style of leadership. Listening to the experiences, anxieties and aspirations of those we are seeking to lead helps leaders understand how to develop a vision that appeals, and develops genuine engagement. It’s not a skill that can be picked up ‘third hand’, through engaging a consultant or reading a staff survey; each of us needs to develop it for ourselves.
“Listening to the experiences, anxieties and aspirations of those we are seeking to lead helps leaders understand how to develop a vision that appeals, and develops genuine engagement”
Importantly, the role of a mentor is not to lecture but to guide, and the first stage is to develop a genuine rapport with the mentee. The best mentoring partnerships are two-way relationships, based on rich conversations that enlighten both parties. Mentoring is far from a burden; it’s an opportunity to learn!
Don’t just take my word for it. I went to a family lunch one Sunday recently and found myself sitting to a man I had never met before, who explained that he really enjoyed being part of the 30% Club Cross-Company mentoring programme. I asked what aspects of it worked best from his perspective. Without hesitation he volunteered, ‘I think I learned more than my mentee, to be honest. Through our meetings I became much more aware of the issues mid-career women face. She taught me so much about how to encourage and motivate women specifically, particularly when they are ambitious and also – as was the case for her – in the midst of having a family. I really learned a lot.’ The mentees in that programme in turn report that they feel able to be more candid than they might be if their mentor was someone in their own firm; something to bear in mind.
Managing better, leading better, demands an intelligent, informed approach. Sending women on assertiveness training, for example, when that has worked for their male colleagues, is not necessarily the answer! We need to be gender-intelligent and attuned to different needs. My own mentees at present are both ethnic minority young women, who’ve faced very different cultural challenges to me. And, as always, I’m learning a huge amount. So often we find that our assumptions are completely wrong, since they inevitably reflect our own experiences. By listening – over many months, with reflection in between the mentoring sessions – we build more accurate understandings, and, in particular, learn what really resonates with our mentees.
Those fresh perspectives have undoubtedly helped me to become a better, more empathetic leader. When CEOs ask me for advice about how to accelerate progress towards a more inclusive, more engaged workforce, I always start with the suggestion that they themselves become a mentor, and encourage their direct reports to do the same. Sitting together as an executive committee cannot possibly help develop empathy with those outside the room! Developing a safe environment, where mentees feel able to be honest without fear of recriminations is an important prerequisite for a successful in-house mentoring scheme, and we can encourage candour by specifically emphasising the ‘reverse-mentoring’ aspect. By showing that senior managers recognise the need to learn from junior staff and are receptive to ideas, we can move closer towards a shared understanding of how the business can position well for the future and connect better with our customers. Empathy is good for everyone!