By Julian Stodd, Mentor for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
I'm a mentor with the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, an international organisation that supports women by building their skills and businesses in developing nations. Mentors embark on year-long, one-to-one mentoring relationships. I am half-way through mine and wanted to take this chance to reflect on the experience.
At first glance, my mentoring relationship was destined to fail: my recently appointed mentee lives in Mumbai, running an interior and textile design business, whilst I live on the south coast of England and once accidentally sewed my own thumb to a curtain.
Two strangers, from different cultures, matched up by a third party. How was that ever going to work?
But, the point of mentoring is not to work with someone who knows how to do your job: it's to work with someone who can help you think in different ways and who can help you be objective and to work out your own solutions to your own problems. Mentoring is about facilitating someone to build their own capability, their own skills.
My mentee and I have had plenty of opportunities to build skills: together we have worked on writing case studies, setting up an eCommerce site and building a website. We bring different perspectives and skills, but also challenge each other’s assumptions. And there is real excitement: when my mentee said she wanted to build an eCommerce site, she really wanted it to work and we had our longest and most in-depth session of all.
One of the first things I learnt was that being a mentor is very different from being in business together. Whilst I know it sounds obvious, the point is about ownership and the very nature of the relationship. In my own business, my instinctive reaction is to jump in and solve problems. I want to get involved, I feel ownership, but with my mentee, it's her business. It's not my role to solve her problems, but rather to provide support and a framework for her to solve those problems within. It's nuanced I realise, but there is a difference. It's a different type of responsibility.
So, when we wrote case studies about her business, she wrote the bulk of it and I just provided feedback, reviewing and commenting. Sometimes, though, I couldn't help myself and just jumped in and wrote a bit: that's called collaboration and it felt right.
Then there are cultural differences. We have a fairly formal relationship, which is actually quite unusual for me as I tend to be very informal with colleagues, but it feels right. It's not a client/supplier relationship, neither is it a manager/employee one, and whilst it's friendly and may lead to friendship, it's still a professional relationship. As I keep saying, it's different from anything else, both in its challenges and rewards.
So, why did I sign up?
For me, it's about responsibility, about being part of a global social learning community. I have learnt a lot through my own mistakes and the support of others, and it feels like time to share some of that. But, it's not just about handing out wisdom: it's about learning even more myself. So much of my work is on large projects that I lose sight of the immediacy of working with one person. Somehow this work feels more important than many of my day-to-day encounters. Indeed, our weekly phone call has become something I look forward to in my week, a fixed island in the ever-shifting seas of project work.
I feared that the relationship would be hard, that it was destined to fail, but it's turned out to be more than I ever imagined. Something I hope we are both proud of and, most importantly, something that is making a difference to both our lives. We could always do more, but it's a foundation.
When you learn, you change. Your view of the world is different because the eyes you look through have changed. And that's when I realised I had changed: when I looked forward to our call.
When we first spoke on the phone, I was nervous. More nervous than at an interview, more nervous than when presenting at a conference. More nervous even than when I had to sing at the school play aged twelve. I was nervous because it was all unknown and, most of all, I was terrified about mispronouncing my mentees name. Ridiculous, I know, but that's the truth of it. In amongst everything else, the different cultures, backgrounds, experiences and challenges, I was most worried about getting off to a good start and getting the name right.
Because every bond, across oceans and cultures, starts with that first conversation and you want it to go well. Because it can be the start of something that changes you and you'll never look back.
The Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is currently recruiting mentors. They’re looking for entrepreneurs and professionals with a diverse range of skills, including marketing, finance, accounting, HR, IT, sales, and strategy, to support a woman entrepreneur through their innovative online mentoring programme. If you’d like to get involved or learn more, please visit: www.cherieblairfoundation.org/mentoring.
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