Innovative Business Ideas

CEO mentoring – a positive new trend

07 April 2015


Human Capital Alliance managing director Edwin Sim looks at the recent CEO mentoring phenomenon.

It’s often very lonely at the top. As a consequence, many CEOs work with experienced mentors to help them achieve personal as well as company goals.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Managing yourself – CEOs need mentoring too, Suzanne de Janasz, PhD and Maury Peiperl PhD said mentors can offer timely context-specific counsel drawn from experience, wisdom and networks that are highly relevant to the problem to be solved.

“…. CEO mentoring is driven by the mentee, reflecting a level of customization rarely provided by people in the ranks.”

CEOs must continuously raise game

In today’s fast-paced corporate environment CEOs are forced to continuously raise their game “…. and have their thinking usefully challenged-for the good of their organizations.”

Moreover, they are often forced to make never-before embarked-upon decisions such as spearheading or defending takeovers and dealing with divergent board opinions. “These demands require new talents.”

In such high-stakes situations, CEOs need wise mentoring that is not the same as coaching. “Few coaches have actually worked in equivalent roles themselves.”

Story telling

Both mentor and mentors preferred story-telling as the primary mode of knowledge sharing.

The mentors shared specific and relevant examples from their own careers – including not only triumphs but also poor decisions that resulted in bad press, tarnished reputations, employee layoffs or share price declines.

In one case, a CEO initially tested his ideas against the seasoned leader’s experiences before asserting a bold strategic refocus that included “tearing down walls of a stodgy hierarchy, placing new emphasis on performance management, talent management, cost effectiveness and investment in growth”.

Biggest obstacle

By far the single biggest obstacle is overcoming the difficulty and awkwardness between the mentor and mentee relationship.

In many cases, high level external consultants such as executive search professionals are asked to play intermediary roles.

“Typically a first meeting is followed by a series of conversations, allowing both parties to assess potential for good outcomes from relationship.”

Satisfying three basic needs

Successful mentors normally satisfied three basic needs.

(1) Relevant experience: Most mentors were about 10 to 15 years ahead of their mentees.

(2) Broad perspective: They generally came from outside the company because mentors must not only think differently but must also understand how the company is regarded in the marketplace.

(3) Importance of complete trust: Complete trust is mandatory, because in many cases, only a certain level of issues can be raised with an internal mentor. “For some executives, it’s simply too risky to expose gaps in knowledge and experience to a chairman or members of Board.”

Making it work

The strongest CEO mentoring relationships must include clear rules of engagement to ensure both parties commit to total confidentiality (even when CEOs boss contacts mentor to ask how charge is doing).

Mentees must be emboldened to disclose without fear or repercussions.

In addition, programs should be formalized so everyone knows that because money is being spent, the work must be taken seriously and it contains a certain rigor.

The relationship’s overall goal is to help CEOs traverse the learning curve and perform the necessary role functions more quickly and effectively.

Great outcomes

De Janasz and Peiperl conducted two years of research into how CEOs gained access to seasoned counsel and feedback. “Dozens of CEO accelerated learning with high profile veteran leaders from outside their organizations.” When CEOs received great support, good outcomes accrued.

The authors said 71 per cent of 45 CEOs who had undergone formal mentoring arrangements believed company performance had improved.

At the same time, 69 per cent said they made better decisions and most importantly 76 per cent said they were fulfilling stakeholder expectations more capably.

Moreover, 84 per cent of the CEOs credited mentors for helping them avoid costly mistakes.

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