Why we all need mentors

| By contenteditor
The potential of mentorship to transform performance by challenging entrenched directions and ways of thinking should not be underestimated, writes Sergio Muscat

A couple of decades ago, fresh out of university and with no work experience, I decided that rather than getting a job like most of my colleagues, I’d give a shot at freelancing for a while. I clearly had no clue where to begin and spent a few months fumbling about trying to find my feet. It wasn’t until I started meeting a few key people who not only had experience in the “real world” but also had a different way of thinking that could challenge my world view that I started getting a grip and growing my portfolio.

The greatest advice

Over the years, both as an employee in payments and igaming, and eventually as a management consultant focusing on strategy, operations, and payments, I sought out and cherished those mentors who crossed my path, providing new points of view and telling me the things I didn’t want to hear, but ultimately believed in me and enabled me to believe in myself.

In retrospect, those moments when mentors were present in my life were the ones where I flourished the most. In turn, both through my employment career as head of project management, business analyst and director of operations, through my work as an artist and also as a consultant, having the opportunity to mentor others at all levels, from new employees to top management, has been, and remains one of the most rewarding aspects of what I do.

The importance of seeking out mentors and trusted advisors cannot be underestimated. They come in various, and sometimes unexpected forms. We might have the (mistaken) impression that our mentors and advisors should be people who have more experience than we do in the areas we operate. This creates a restrictive mindset the higher we climb in the corporate ladder.

Oftentimes, it is not the experience that makes a good mentor, but their character, aptitudes and trustworthiness. The greatest advice we can receive is that we cannot give ourselves. Every one of us tends to fit a particular character type, with our own strength and weaknesses. On our own, we would tend to move into a specific direction and act in a more or less predictable way. When seeking mentors and advisors, we should look towards people who challenge us and think in different ways.

I personally have a fondness for the 16 personalities mapping. It gives a good indication of where we fit onto the spectrum and outlines our main strengths and weaknesses. I tend to fit somewhere between the mediator and advocate (introverted, intuitive, feeling, prospecting/judging) personalities, explaining the drive to help others, expressing myself creatively and being somewhat of a perfectionist.

On the other hand, it also means I tend to be overly cautious and self-critical, which makes it more difficult to take risks and go all in. That falls more under the entrepreneur character type (extroverted, observant, thinking and prospecting), who are “energetic and action-oriented, deftly navigating whatever is in front of them”. This makes them ideal to plough through obstacles, have a strong belief in themselves and excel at getting things done. The downside to this character trait is that they tend to jump into things without thinking too much about them and fixing things as they crop up.

Entrepreneurs have an amazing talent to move things forward, but their tendencies to take too much risk and miss the big picture often start being felt even before the business takes off, and even more as the organisation grows. I bring forward these two examples since my personal experience has shown me that these two personality types pair excellently together as mutual mentors and advisors.

Entrepreneurs work best in new industries, where innovation is a key factor to success. In more mature industries, where it is difficult to be innovative enough to enjoy limited competition, new businesses are more likely to feel the force of gravity when leaping, often resulting in painful losses before succeeding, if at all.

Gas pedals are great, however sometimes it’s also important to have that brake pedal, to slow down and give some thought on where we are, and where we’re going. Conversely, some business structures would gain tremendous benefit from people who can assist them with pushing forward, promoting change, innovating, and overcoming inertia instilled through years of operation.

We can often observe that the amazing talent to bring about quick growth, when coupled with a lack of strategic organisation and the necessary pause to look at the bigger picture results, very early on, in intra-organisational communication issues, an unclear direction and a trail of defunct projects. We should never underestimate the ability for smaller organisations to quickly change direction and grab opportunities, however it is important to do this in a thoughtful fashion, understanding which projects are worth taking a risk on, rather than being seduced by the risk itself.

Similarly, too much structure too early will potentially hamper flexibility and creativity, while too little will create inefficiencies that might plague the organisation down the road. A similar scenario can be observed in the early human transition from hunter-gatherer tribes to farming communities. Originally, these tribes were small enough to allow for flexible roles and mesh communication – everyone knew everyone else. As farming was introduced, and the communities grew hundredfold, it became more important to create some structure, hierarchy and communication channels, which allowed for more efficient running of the community.

Return of the Jack

We can start to see why bringing in different personality traits into the organisation at any stage can help keep it well balanced and grounded. This can be done by employing people with varying character types into the organisation, or by finding and bringing in advisors who can act as counterbalances to the management team and the organisation in general. The latter arguably requires even more foresight than the former, since too often, organisations tend to favour seeking specialists over generalists. This could be a reflection of our own, agrarian based, social structure, developed over the past millennia.

Organisations may find it easier to justify the hiring of people who have narrow and deep experience, since they can be easily pigeonholed to perform a limited range of tasks well. It is the result of a hundred years of organisational structuring stemming from the industrial revolution and mass production.

The question beckons, at this point, how relevant this remains in this day and age, and whether structures that served well in manufacturing are valid for digital-based innovative enterprises. It is important not overlook the benefits brought by people who have a broader skill set, and their ability to provide fluidity and adaptability in varying situations. We might want to drop the stigma surrounding the famous “Jack of all trades” expression.

There is significant foresight in the ability of leaders to identify the needs of an organisation early on and connect with people who can challenge their point of view, occasionally tap the brake pedal, and analyse a situation, problem, or scenario objectively.

Similarly, a tap on the gas pedal is beneficial on occasion, taking a little more risk to innovate and gain early-mover advantages. Sometimes this motivation to change can only come from those who sit just outside of the day-to-day grind – those who can provide honest, unbiased and unadulterated advice, gain trust and provide support across all levels of the organisation, listen impartially and provide a different point of view, eventually spurring personal and organisational growth. Sometimes, it can only come from mentors.

Sergio Muscat is the Founder of Oxygia, a boutique management consultancy specialising in strategic, operational, and human insight advisory. With several years of experience in project management, business analysis, operations, and payments amongst others, Oxygia assists organisations of any size and industry to investigate, manage and adapt to the future.

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