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Mentoring for Success part I

12 March 2013

Mentoring is a necessary ingredient for career development. A good mentoring relationship will  help clarify your strategy and progress to landing a role. Claire Braund is the Executive Director of Women on Boards, an organisation that has assisted more than 1,000 women gain board positions in all industries and sectors across Australia in five years. 

In this interview with Helen Wiseman, entrepreneur, non executive director, and professional mentor, Claire delves into the nature of the mentor/mentee relationship for success.

CB: We know that mentoring is a critical piece of the puzzle for women achieving success in their career – be it director, sme or c-suite. Can you explain why this type of relationship is so critical?

HW: Mentoring offers a highly tailored learning opportunity board from a mentor who has been there before you and can lend their experience and insights. They can save you valuable time (years even) in avoiding pitfalls that you might not otherwise see. Or they can help you discover alternative, sometimes less obvious, pathways to achieve your goals.  A mentor is also a sounding board in a safe and trusted environment – someone who takes the time to understand your goals, and help you recognise and leverage your achievements.  The mentor/mentee relationship, enables both parties to be candid, which is often not possible within formal work settings. Mentors can be invaluable in offering new perspectives when you feel stuck, e.g. when grappling with a major decision or overcoming a career cross-roads. 

CB: What are the forms that the most successful mentor/mentee relationships take and what are some of the red flags women need to look out for when choosing a mentor?

HW:  Mentoring relationships often endure over several months or even years but they do not have to be.  One form of mentoring is what I call “mini-mentoring” – catching up with someone with a particular skill or experience that you admire, to hear from them how they do it; and get some tips. This form of mini-mentoring can take the pressure off in terms of trying to find the “right” long-term mentor. Done well, mini-mentoring can expose you to a wide variety of perspectives and network building opportunities. 

Traditional mentoring relationships are typically longer term and may evolve out of a long-standing work relationship or other connection.  You may not even refer to this trusted relationship as “mentoring”, but the effect is similar.  

The most successful mentoring relationships are not so much about the form the mentoring takes, but about “fit” - the quality of the relationship, the degree of trust and honesty between mentor and mentee, the capacity for genuine dialogue and mutual respect, the ability and experience of the mentor in helping you realise your goals etc. 

Red flags to look out for are really the flipside of the above.  No matter how sage or experienced the mentor, no matter how high their profile, if the trust and “fit” isn’t there, the mentoring relationship is unlikely to be effective and, worse a potential waste of time for all concerned.

CB: We work with women around Australia who aspire to a board position from a local sporting organisation to women joining their first or second ASX board.  From your mentoring what are some of the common challenges you see and what suggestions can you make?

HW: The biggest challenge I see is not being able to articulate the value that you bring to a particular board or committee.  This involves much more than being able to list your skills, experience and achievements.  You need to be clear about what type of problems you are best at solving, and in what scenarios you make your greatest contribution. Have case studies to back these up.  This can involve some lateral thinking and a good area where a mentor can help you.

But it is more than this.  You also need to be clear about how what you offer is relevant to THIS board at THIS time and the direction they want to go in. Whilst categories of boards such as not-for-profit, ASX or SME can be useful in thinking about where you want to operate as a director, each board and each organisation is absolutely unique.  The more specific you can be about how you will contribute to meet a particular board’s objectives, the more homework you do, the more successful you are likely to be.

The other challenge I see is not starting early enough.  If board work is something that you envisage doing some time in the future, even 10-20 years hence, start the journey now – build your networks, find a committee or board to which you can contribute e.g. a volunteer committee.  Whilst this experience may not propel you onto an ASX board, that’s not the point. 

Taking on a committee role teaches you about governance, planning for the future, the nature of collective board-decision making and the types of situations where you contribute best.  Building these skills can assist you in your normal work role as well as give you useful early experience as part of a longer term board career strategy.

CB: Where do you suggest women look to for a mentor?

HW:  The answer to this question depends on what you want to achieve, and how you would like a mentor to assist you.  A good place to start is your networks (eg your organisation, or industry).  If a prospective mentor is not in your direct network, then is there someone who knows you well and might be able to recommend a good mentor? 

Also be on the lookout for a prospective mentor through media articles, experienced board directors, industry leaders etc. in your area of interest.  Many people find it daunting to approach such people but you will often be surprised at how much people are willing to help, even at the most senior levels.  Also, tools such as Linkedin may highlight people in your networks who might be able to introduce you.  Generally, I suggest a low-key approach initially (e.g. coffee, short meetings) and if you feel that there would be a good fit between you, pluck up courage and ask.  Even if they are unable to mentor you at this time, chances are they will recommend someone and introduce you. 

There are also formal mentoring programs such as the highly successful Women on Boards mentoring program.  Organisations like Women on Boards have already selected a pool of mentors with relevant experience who are willing to help.  Based on your needs, they can recommend a potential mentor.  This can be a very accessible and effective way of finding a mentor.

An experienced independent mentor can:


  •  provide support to deal with new challenges or with challenging situations
  •  help develop new skills and knowledge
  •  increase self confidence and self awareness
  •  increase your effectiveness
  • provide a sounding board for challenges
  •  help you review your career and life goals
  •     grow your professional network