What really happens in the room with a mentor? These vignettes drawn from a mentor’s session notes (names changed) may help in visualising what a mentor does. By Sean Spence
Helen arrives. Her first words are: “I’ve got three idiots on my team and I am barely on speaking terms with my MD.”
As we talk about the difficulty the company is facing, it emerges that she is new in her role. For some reason I ask: “What’s the uncertainty like?”
Helen hisses: “Why? Do you think I can’t handle it?”
“Well, I wonder whether your team feels the same way you do?”
Helen draws breath, then says: “You know, I’m terrified I might be made redundant. I’m not sure I can handle this job and the company is struggling. We need to merge to survive. But what will happen to me?”
As we analyse it, the sense of catastrophe recedes. Then she says: “Oh, I see. These three are acting as if I am going to fire them. They don’t trust me but they are the ones I really need.”
By the end of the session, Helen has decided to talk to each member honestly about their prospects and fears of redundancy and arrange a meeting to confront the MD about her own prospects.
I ask Helen to do a drawing of “the situation”.
After she has explained the picture, I say: “It looks like you are a double person: some sort of warrior-doctor.”
“Yes, I feel torn all the time. I have to fight for lots of things but my team expect me to nurse them.”
“But you are just one thing. What are you really?”
There is no immediate answer.
Helen opens with: “My deputy divisional head has resigned to move interstate. I feel really betrayed by him.”
“Have you been nurturing him as a supporter?”
“I suppose I see him as competition. I expected him to be the warrior but I haven’t really backed him up. I’m not proud of that.”
She reaches a decision, “I’ll talk to him about it. He will get a good reference, and I’ll ask him to help me recruit his successor.”
As we finished, I asked: “So, does this mean you are also competitive with the MD?” She gave me a wry look.
Helen arrives late and flustered. “The firm is in merger discussions and the MD has dumped me with another division to amalgamate. And the takeover means I can’t go with Bob and the kids on the Bali trip. I have had enough.”
We spend most of the session with Helen reeling out her frustrations and crying. I spend most of the time simply listening but gradually a few ideas emerge.
“I’ll book a make-up weekend break at a health resort with Bob when the merger is concluded. And I know I need good merger skills in my new COO.”
Helen seems alert and relaxed.
“Which candidate will I hire?”
To bring the recruitment decision alive, I help Helen visualise how each candidate’s personality might fit with the team, as if they were all in the room.
“Doing this, I can almost hear what they would say, and how. I’ll hire Jane: she will add to the team’s coherence.”
Helen recounts a powerful dream. “It’s a beautiful ship. I can see the whole thing and I am in there. But it’s going to crash and I am afraid.”
“If the ship is a metaphor for the company, what does that imply?”
Helen exclaims: “Good grief! I’ve just realised what I need to do at my meeting with the MD next week.”
The discussion leads to an agreement on how she will present her ideas in the meeting with the MD and listen for his response.
Session 11 (the final session)
Helen says: “The meeting went really well. I showed him I could fight for the company and also look after people. The MD said that if the merger happens he will support creating a new division and champion me to run it.”
My last question is: “Who do you now have as your personal group of mentors?”
“My champions are the MD, the new number two, and my spouse. And you, as a voice in my head.”
Each event in this sketch has happened with one or other of my clients during the last year.
What does it tell me? New insights emerge and the client becomes independent of my help. this is the best outcome.
How not to
How not to grab market share
Shrinking your way to success may seem a rather dubious business strategy, but that is exactly what was often taught in business schools during the 1980s and 1990s. A “niche strategy” or “product differentiation” are the phrases usually used to describe this approach.
The logic is that mass-market producers concentrate on creating large volume at low cost for a large market, deriving economy of scale. But this leaves an up-market segment of customers who look for superior products and are able to pay a higher price.
This was precisely the logic ruthlessly executed by such niche marques as Rover, Triumph, Jaguar, Riley, MG, Alpha Romeo and SAAB. Every one of these companies has been taken over by a larger car maker, proving that it pays not to be an extremely pretty minnow.
Needless to say, the retrenched executives will be able to get well-paid jobs at business schools explaining why the strategy of concentrating on niches is not always successful.
How not to spend public money
The public funds derived from lotteries and casinos are rarely subject to sensible distribution, as many state governments in Australia are keen on demonstrating. But few public fiascos have quite matched the infamous Millennium Dome at Greenwich, England, which was finally put out of its misery on the eve of the millennium it was supposed to celebrate.
Britain’s National Audit Office condemned the financial mismanagement of the project right from its inception. The British Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons gave the financial officers of the Dome’s operating company many painful public grillings, unfairly using the truth as their ally.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair even went so far as to publicly denounce the Dome.
The Dome consumed 628 million ($2 billion) of lottery money, a sizeable chunk of the nearly 9 billion that has been distributed to so-called “good causes”. When it was finally closed, the Dome’s management thanked everyone who had supported the project, (presumably as a gesture of relief that they had not been lynched for squandering so much money).
How not to create an economic theory
Modern economic theory might be described as one long “how not to”, but one of its silliest assumptions is what is amusingly described as the “backward-sloping supply curve of labor”.
This is described by futurist Robert Theobald in his book, Reworking Success. “Their [economists] obvious assumption was that people would do less work if they could get the goods and services they wanted with less effort, and would then choose more leisure.
“The fact that suddenly struck me was that modern Western societies do not exhibit this kind of behavior. Westerners typically go on working just as hard even when they get richer. They remain committed to their jobs as the way to make sense of their lives and also see increased consumption as central to their self worth.
“It thus became clear to me that the way economic systems are structured both is, and should be, subsidiary to cultural desires. As soon as I could, I met with the dean of my college. He told me, in effect, that if my idea was new, it was not valuable; and if it was valuable, it was not new.”
One might add that, if a person is an economist, they are not credible; and, if they are credible, they are not an economist. This is otherwise known as the “backward-sloping common sense short circuit”.
The Slithershanks File
Slithershanks was particularly impressed by a recent missive from the European Union, which would do Sir Humphrey (of Yes, Minister fame) proud.
The EU said it would in future be using the principles of “Activity Based Management”, which, it should be made absolutely clear, is a “policy-driven SPP framework” and not to be confused with the new “Integrated Resource Management System”, into which “Activity Based Budget methodology will be integrated”.
Not content to stop there, the EU will then raise itself to new lows by undertaking a strengthening of financial management, by relying in part on the “quasi-abolition of central exante visa controls”.
Horrifyingly, some advisers are being “eliminated from organigrammes”. A fate worse than that fate whatever it was that was worse than death, reflected Slithershanks.