Friends in high places

Mentoring is evolving from a casual arrangement to a vital tool for creating the next generation of leaders. MT talks to three mentors and their protegees about what they get from it.

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Inspiring Women 2013

Cilla Snowball will chair MT's Inspiring Women conference on November 27, 2013 - click here to find out more.

In Greek mythology, Mentor was the elderly friend and tutor whom Odysseus chose to take charge of his son Telemachus when he left for the Trojan war. The role clearly suited him, as it bequeathed us a form of relationship that is now recognised as a key development tool, not least in the promotion of new leaders within an organisation. Mentoring has become so well established that it is virtually a way of life within many businesses, one of the key ways in which the baton is passed from one generation to the next. And its potency is acknowledged in the increasing use of mentoring to promote diversity within organisations; it can help to furnish a route map to the top that might not previously have existed.

Peninah Thomson is chief executive of the Mentoring Foundation, which runs a cross-company scheme for FTSE-100 companies to link high-potential women with mentors in other companies. She says: 'Mentoring is a belief system that says senior people learn best not from training courses or theoretical programmes, but from narrative and stories told by people who have a wealth of experience, are articulate and willing to share.'

For years it happened implicitly between largely male protagonists, she argues, and her FTSE scheme is designed to adapt the same principles to the different construction of women's working lives.

Mentoring can take a variety of forms, some more formal than others, but there are some guidelines for success: chemistry between mentor and mentee is all-important, the matching process is key, and both sides must be thoroughly committed. 'Above all, there has to be a spirit of generosity,' says Thomson. MT asked three mentor/mentee pairings how they make it work.


Cilla Snowball is best known as group chairman and CEO of advertising group AMV.BBDO, but she also has an extra-curricular role as a member of the University of Birmingham's governing council. In this latter capacity, Snowball came up with the idea of a mentoring scheme under which successful alumni would support final-year students and help them secure employment after graduation.

Among the high-profile mentors who agreed to take part are former chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson, actress Tamsin Greig, The Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd and Sainsbury's group commercial director, Mike Coupe.

Snowball says the brief was simple: 'To coach, guide, support and challenge a final-year student so that within six months they have a job.' For some, that might seem onerous, but Snowball already mentors half a dozen rising stars for the Marketing Academy. She explains: 'I think a good mentor is an unofficial career friend, and I've always had people who supported me throughout my career.'

In the Birmingham programme, Snowball has for the past 12 months been mentor to Erin-Jane Golding, a final-year undergraduate in American and Canadian studies with ambitions for a career in advertising or the media. 'I came back from the US, saw an ad for the programme and thought it looked an amazing opportunity,' says Golding. 'Cilla was my first choice, because she was in the area I wanted to go into. Initially, I wanted to gain clarity about which career direction I should take. I had my own views but I didn't know how to go about it and I knew it would be very competitive to get my foot in the door.'

Snowball adds: 'Erin-Jane was worried about her finals, and so I helped her to come to a key decision, which was to leave her job applications until she had completed them.' Golding says: 'Once I'd met Cilla and we'd got to know each other, I broadened my goals in terms of what she could help me with. She not only offered sound advice on how to look for jobs, she also supported me in my final year in terms of how to organise my time effectively, and the kind of mindset I needed to adopt.'

Over the past year, the two have met about once a month, often just in the pub in Birmingham with a drink and a packet of crisps. In addition, Snowball has taken Golding to a number of networking events and invited her to a 'summer school' in her own agency, as well as helping with those job applications. 'Sometimes, Erin-Jane would just come in here to work instead of an internet cafe,' she says. And the story has a happy ending. Golding got the grades she wanted and achieved two good job offers, from which she has chosen to join a communications trainee scheme with Channel 4.

'It's been a phenomenal experience and a privilege to have Cilla as my mentor,' says Golding. 'Anyone would chew off their right arm for it.'

And Snowball concludes: 'I won't stop looking after Erin because she's got her job and the mission's been accomplished. She knows she can always ask me for advice, or help, or guidance.'


Unilever's global mentoring programme started in 2009 to fulfil the specific business objective of accelerating more women into senior leadership positions. 'Before, mentoring was quite informal,' says global talent manager Katherine Ray. 'This was designed to speed up the transition between certain high-level roles.'

Patricia Corsi, Unilever's brand development director for laundry products in Europe, joined the programme two years ago, and when her first mentor left the company she was paired with Pier Luigi Sigismondi, Unilever's chief supply chain officer and a member of the worldwide executive board.

Corsi, who came to the UK from Brazil four years ago, says: 'I wanted to have an opportunity to learn from a much more experienced professional and to get a different point of view on my career next steps.' She was also eager to learn from someone who had made a similar geographic move - Sigismondi is originally from Italy and has worked in Venezuela - and had some specific management issues to discuss. She explains: 'Sometimes you have a situation where you have to influence stakeholders. I wanted to find out how to convey one message, how do I make this message really strong and convincing?'

Sigismondi says the first meeting was not about formal objectives, however, but about getting to know each other. 'It's important that you treat your mentee as a person, not as an employee,' he says. 'So we started talking about ourselves, and this was the biggest surprise for her, because she was never expecting me to be myself and to actually tell her about what my challenges are where I sit.'

The pair have met every couple of months during the year for two hours at a time, and Corsi makes a point of preparing carefully for each meeting. She says: 'It's important he feels I am committed to this programme and I really value his time, which I know is precious.'

For his part, Sigismondi says it is essential in any mentoring relationship to have 'rules of engagement': there must be a mutual interest, a clear commitment to invest the time, and respect. But he also believes that to be most effective, mentoring crosses the boundary of the merely professional, and explores deeper personal questions. 'That unleashes many of the self-confidence issues that you need to face in order to grow professionally.'

His approach, he says, is to come to each meeting with a fresh perspective that Corsi will not have considered: 'It keeps her thinking after the meeting on how to improve, how to see things differently and how to grow as a person.' And Corsi says: 'The value is immense, not just because he's on the Unilever board, but because Pier Luigi is a very inspiring person.'

She concludes: 'Knowing people believe in you drives you to do more and better. I'm very reassured about my role in Unilever, how the company sees me, and I have clarity on where I'm going. I really, really treasure this relationship with my mentor.'


Marina Wegorek is the enterprise and community engagement director at RBS's corporate banking division. After taking maternity leave, she returned to work last year, initially part time, and was introduced to Suzanne Avery, who is the bank's managing director for real estate finance in London and the south-east, as well as being sponsor for sustainability and women's markets.

Wegorek says: 'My line manager thought we would get on well because we had an area of shared interest through Suzanne's involvement in sustainability.' The relationship wasn't initially about mentoring - though Wegorek says she had always wanted a mentor - but it soon evolved that way. Wegorek says: 'I started treating Suzanne as a mentor, and it developed into that as she gave me advice.'

As the relationship grew, Avery says, 'the initial areas Marina wanted to work on included communicating with impact at more senior levels, increasing her confidence and putting herself forward for different opportunities.'

Wegorek says: 'In a work environment, if you have got concerns or issues about confidence, they are things you wouldn't necessarily discuss with a colleague. But with a mentor you can seek guidance about this kind of thing, as well as your progress in your career.'

The pair have spoken every few weeks over the past year, both face to face and on the phone. Avery says: 'I've tried to help Marina in a combination of ways. Listening is one key aspect but also asking her questions, presenting a challenge to her, to give her some different perspectives on the same question. I don't come telling her what to do, but talk things through and expand the range of options for her to consider.'

In particular, she helped her junior colleague to overcome some psychological barriers. Wegorek explains: 'Suzanne was a motivator for me. Because I was part time, you start thinking there is a limit to what you can do. I started creating barriers in my own head. But Suzanne didn't allow that to be a blocker. She made me think about my own capabilities and started to work on my confidence as well.'

Avery encouraged Wegorek to join The Pearls, an RBS-sponsored programme of events and online support targeted at women just below the senior corporate level who have been identified as having the potential to be future leaders. Wegorek says: 'I am really happy, thrilled to be part of that. It means you are one of the top 200 women in the organisation, and gives you the confidence, capability and connections to reach the top.' She is also working full time again, with a flexible arrangement, and says: 'Suzanne has been a great support to me. I recently started mentoring another employee because I've seen the benefits I've had and it will be great to pass that on.'

For her part, Avery says mentoring has been a rewarding experience: 'You can learn from the person you're interacting with. It gives you insights and different perspectives, and keeps you in tune with people at different stages of their career.'

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