Mentoring: how you can benefit from the voice of experience

The pressure of a senior role can bring isolation, demotivation and crises of confidence. A mentor can offer the skills and space to overcome such issues, writes Patrick McCurry

Mentors will often be someone more senior in the voluntary sector
Mentors will often be someone more senior in the voluntary sector

Many charity staff encounter difficulties in their careers, and the opportunity to talk in confidence to someone who has been through similar experiences can be valuable. This is where mentoring can help.

For a chief executive the problems might be isolation, heavy responsibilities or a difficult relationship with trustees. For others it could be dealing with change, feeling unfocused or demotivated, or a lack of confidence in areas such as running a team or dealing with pressure from funders.

Some mentors work with organisations as a whole, others with individuals. Those that work with individuals help with work-related issues and personal ones, such as building confidence. Often there is an overlap between the personal and professional factors. The idea is for the mentee to learn from the mentor's experience. The mentor will often be someone more senior in the voluntary sector, or possibly a senior person from a different sector.

Val Barritt, head of training and quality assurance at the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation, describes mentoring as a confidential, one-to-one relationship that can help someone develop their career.

"Mentoring can help the individual develop new skills and build up confidence," she says. "Often the mentor has skills or experience that the mentee wants to develop. Through listening, asking questions and helping to produce an action plan, the mentor can provide a space for the mentee to reflect on their work."

Lally Pearson (pictured), the membership and mentoring manager at CharityComms, the network for communications professionals in the sector, says mentees find it valuable to have a neutral space to talk to someone: "The mentee can draw on the mentor's different experience and perspective."

But where to find a mentor? Resources may include a charity's own membership, schemes run by the local volunteer centre or other local charities or businesses.

The CharityComms mentoring programme is open to organisational members of the network. Other mentoring schemes include those for charity leaders, such as the ones run by chief executives group Acevo and by the Kilfinan Group.

Usually the mentor will meet the mentee face to face several times a year, perhaps with phone or email contact between meetings.

Pearson believes that a good mentoring relationship is one that inspires and motivates the mentee: "The mentee gets to understand how the mentor got to their position and the steps they took. It can open up the mentee's network and in some cases they might be introduced to other people or to useful resources."

Barritt adds that it's important to recognise that the role of mentors is not to tell mentees what to do but to help them think through challenges and develop their own solutions.

The Kilfinan Group, which offers mentoring to charity chief executives, is made up of a group of senior business-people, each of whom has extensive experience and brings a range of skills and interests.

Amanda Delew, one of the group coordinators at the Kilfinan Group, says many charity chief executives can feel isolated and burdened by responsibility. Talking through such issues with a mentor can help relieve the pressure, as well as encouraging them in the development of fresh skills and perspectives that can enhance their careers.

Delew says: "It's about the mentor and mentee exploring the problems, rather than the mentee being told what to do. The mentor's different perspective can often help the charity chief executive with what might seem an intractable issue."


James Barker

Barker (left), who works in direct marketing, was put in touch with his mentor by CharityComms. "I was the only direct marketing person at a small charity, so I was looking for someone with whom to discuss my role and to talk about a digital strategy," he says.

"My mentor was a woman in a more senior marketing role at another voluntary organisation and I got ideas from her about developing my career, including what questions I should ask at interview to see if it was the right job for me."

Barker has since become a mentor himself and finds the role very satisfying: "It has helped my management skills because I've learned how to help people by listening and asking the right questions."

Robert Music

Music (left), chief executive at Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, organised a mentor through the Kilfinan Group – an entrepreneur from the music industry, who built his business up from a small enterprise.

"As we're a charity that has grown a lot in the past few years, it's been great to be able to bounce ideas off someone who has been through growth in a different sector," says Music.

The mentor also happened to be a trustee of a charity, and this experience was useful for Music to draw on when discussing trustee issues.

The mentoring relationship has helped Music develop new skills, which he says will help in his career: "Being questioned and sometimes challenged in a constructive way has helped me reflect on how I make important decisions and the kind of questions I need to be asking."

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