Mentoring: the voice of experience

Though rarely used in a PR context, mentoring can offer many personal and business benefits, says Maja Pawinska Sims

It is common for heads of PR agencies or departments to seek to improve the professional skills of their staff through training courses, but what about their own development? To whom can the boss turn when looking for leadership advice? One oft-neglected option is that of having a 'mentor', a professional who can offer business counsel and support rooted in their own experience.

According to a 2005 survey by HR consultancy DDI, mentoring is a popular practice in other areas of business. It found that 60 per cent of UK business leaders have had a coach or mentor at some point, and of these, a remarkable 97 per cent said they had benefited from the advice given. 

There is evidence, albeit in rather more isolated case studies, that mentoring can work well for PROs. One such testimony comes from Darren Northeast, MD of Dorset-based agency Spiral PR, who for the past two years has been working with Russell Hart, head of mentoring firm Strategies for Success. Hart boasts senior clients in organisations such as Canon, American Express and the Department of Health.

Northeast says the mentoring programme gave him the assurance to grow his agency by 35 per cent in the past year. 'I wanted A-list clients for the first time, and now I have the confidence to pull in contracts I never thought I could six months ago,' he says. 'My mentor helped me identify what was holding me back subconsciously, so that I could look at the issues independently and assess their risk.'

For mentoring to become more widely disseminated across the PR industry it must close the gap that exists between its somewhat soft, 'nice-to-have' reputation and the more hard-headed business reality.
According to Northeast, a good mentor does not come cheap - sessions can cost up to £1,000 per day -  and he or she should be seen as a serious investment that will yield direct benefits for mentees and their company.

Mentoring should not be confused with coaching. A coach offers more formal teaching skills and provides a more structured framework for professional development. And while mentoring might include some coaching techniques, it is usually an intense one-to-one relationship, as opposed to the group activities often associated with coaching. Sessions can be face-to-face or over the phone, and can be flexible - weekly, monthly, or less often - depending on need, budget and time constraints.

At Cirkle Communications, director Caroline Kinsey uses two mentors: one to help the management team with reviews and personality profiling, another - with a strong creative pedigree - to support the development of the business. 'Last year we grew by 20 per cent, and we've just relaunched our corporate identity. I'm immensely proud of what we've achieved and I know that mentoring has made a tangible difference to our team dynamic.'

The desire to take a business to the next level is a common trigger for hiring mentors, but they can be used at any stage, including crunch moments such as starting up, growing from a small to a medium-sized agency, or exit planning and succession.

Sandy Lindsay, managing director of PR consultancy and media training company Tangerine PR in Manchester, has used mentors throughout the life of her business, including former Consolidated Communications founder Alastair Gornall (now CEO of Reed Exhibitions) and current mentor Paul Carroll, founder of Communique PR.

'My mentors have had different skills and experiences to apply to our business where relevant,' she says. 'When I first sought external advice, I just wanted to pick other people's brains, so I took a lot of senior PR people to lunch, including Alastair. He was just the right person for me because he had started his own agencies. Now I need less support, but I use Paul from time to time as a sounding board, to check I'm doing the right thing.'

Catalyst for growth
Susanna Simpson, founder of Limelight PR, also took on a mentor from within the industry with the aim of growing her agency. She has worked with Paul Miller, a former director of Porter Novelli (and her first boss), for more than a year.

'I set up Limelight four years ago, and it was doing well, but I wanted to grow significantly,' she recalls. 'I thought it would be wise to seek advice from someone with industry experience. Directors have to make all the decisions, but can't know everything. Mentoring has helped me focus my vision and given me huge motivation: the business is set to double in size over the next 12 months.'

Steve Bustin, a former BBC News journalist and founder of media relations consultancy Vada Media, agrees that mentoring has provided a boost to his leadership capabilities. He has worked with Exceptional Performers mentor Gordon Borer for a year.

'As a CEO it is very difficult to get feedback on your own performance when you're running the business,' he says. 'We spend so much time focused on clients, and it's great to have time to think as an individual. Some might see that as an indulgence, but I see it as an essential investment in me and the business.'

Unfortunately, there is no central pool of mentors for the PR industry, although generic mentors who run their own companies are attached to business schools and organisations such as Business Link. Some European countries' industry bodies - for instance, the Swedish equivalent of the CIPR - run mentor schemes for members, and the UK institute has said it would explore the matter if there was enough interest. This willingness may be rooted in the fact that CIPR education and training committee chair Jay O'Connor uses a mentor, former software client head Terry Wilcox.

Alongside the reasons detailed above for the small number of mentors used in the PR industry, Richard Baines, who provides coaching and mentoring services through Argyll HR, adds another to the mix. He argues that the relative youth of agency and departmental heads is a factor.

'There are a lot of young people running PR businesses now, and perhaps mentoring is seen as an answer to the problems of a different generation: they want to "do it their way",' he explains. 'There is also a fairly small pool of people in the industry who might reasonably qualify as - or want to be - a mentor.'

However, as well as owner-run businesses using support, some larger consultancy groups are beginning to understand the benefits of mentoring. Cohn & Wolfe, for instance, now offers mentoring to all board members via Kindred Spirit Consultancy.

C&W managing director of corporate affairs Stephen Doherty says he would otherwise never have sought support from a mentor. Now he is evangelistic in its praise: 'When I went to my first session nine months ago it was quite a revelation. Since then mentoring has allowed me to pause and focus on the things I can control in my working life. It's helped me become a better professional, and a nicer person to be around. I'm a convert.'

Midnight Communications' mentoring experience
'I admit I was cynical about mentors before I started using one,' says Midnight Communications managing director and founder Caraline Brown  Last year, she put herself and her business intelligence manager Sarah Ogden (left) through the Building the Creative Business course at the Centre for Creative Business, a non-profit joint venture between London Business School and University for Arts London.

Invaluable advice
'I'd never had any formal business training but the programme caught my eye because it talked about developing people and strategy and financial planning. We were asked to bring along a colleague, and although I did baulk at the idea of spending double the fee, it has been invaluable to share problems with someone who works so closely with me,' says Brown.

On the first of three residential weekends, Brown and Ogden asked programme tutor John Bates (centre) to be their mentor. Bates is a professor of entrepreneurship at London Business School, with a background in running and advising creative and technology businesses.

He says: 'Sarah and Caraline had different agendas for the development of the business, so I worked with them separately and as a pair to test their assumptions of where the business was going, and their aspirations.'

Brown says one of the main benefits for her was having a sounding board: 'You can get isolated at the top. I often  had great ideas, but no one to take them to. John helped us to reflect upon ourselves and consider where we wanted to go.'

Ogden describes Bates as 'a wise owl': 'I was able to talk to him about financial and strategic decisions, and he helped me see options I hadn't considered before.'

Bates says mentoring is about providing the mentee with the opportunity to test ideas in a non-performance-related environment, allowing the development of business capabilities and skills: 'It's about creating space to spend time with someone not involved with the business to talk about your role and objectives. That's very hard to do by yourself. A lot of it is about building confidence: most owners think their business is unique, while the reality is that they can learn from people who have been through it before.'
Centre for Creative Business:

Find a mentor
Want to find a mentor? These organisations may be able to help:

Mentors Forum
A portal uniting mentors and businesses, offering case studies and more information.

UK Business Incubation
Office space provider with mentors and on hand to offer help and advice.

The UK's first online mentoring firm set up by businesswoman Deborah Edgar.

European Mentoring & Coaching Council
Provides guidelines on good practice in mentoring and coaching across Europe.

Business Link
Provides contacts for mentors specific to different business types.

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