Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Skilling up: Finding the right mentor

When Simon Boddie, the CFO of industrial threads maker Coats, became the head of finance at previous group Electrocomponents, he turned to outgoing finance director Jeff Hewitt for advice.

“I hadn’t sat on a board before and I hadn’t really done the investor piece in terms of presenting. But Electros were happy to help me get up the learning curve, especially as the FD I took over from Jeff Hewitt was very generous in his support.

“I had some overlap with him for a month or so that was very useful. I was able to build confidence and credibility, made possible in an environment that was supportive,” he says.

It may have been a short period but one that provided Boddie with the invaluable know-how to make the leap into a big plc finance leader role. The outgoing finance director may be a logical mentor but other personnel who have a handle on key areas can also be supportive at important times.

The mentoring journey for a finance career can take place any time, says Susie Clements, co-managing partner, Global Financial Officers Practice at global search firm Heidrick & Struggles.

“Early in your career you may benefit from mentoring from an audit partner or a direct report to a CFO such as a divisional FD or group financial controller, however, as you move into these roles yourself, you may need a current or former CFO to guide you to the top finance role.

“Once you have achieved the CFO role, a financially oriented chairman or audit chair may play a key role in your on-going development,” she adds. Clements describes a mentor as “‘an experienced and trusted adviser – often an individual who has prior experience of the roles and career that the mentee is undertaking who can offer specific advice, guidance and training.”

Wealth of knowledge

Because of the breadth of knowledge required by a CFO, the sources for good advice can keep changing as the role changes- especially as more commercial elements of a group are included in the remit.

On the way to becoming CFO of oil giant BP, Brian Gilvary describes a colleague “teaching me pretty much everything I know today about a P&L and a balance sheet. I found out the hard way over the best part of two years. Pretty much most evenings, he dissected a P&L and balance sheet, explaining how it all works.”

Non-executives can be a useful source of information. Rowan Baker, CFO of retirement homes builder McCarthy & Stone says that the experience of NEDs was key to giving presentations and engaging with shareholder and analysts when stepping up to the top finance role. “My non-exec directors could not have been more positive to me coming at that afresh, particularly Frank Nelson, our SID, who had been CFO of construction group Galliford Try.“

He would readily say to me ‘I didn’t know how to do that before I was actually CFO and of course you’ll be able to do it’, we’re prepared and up for you learning those things as you go”.

Penny James, CFO of general insurer Direct Line, says it’s worth looking outside the immediate vicinity if need be for support: “If I haven’t got a person on the board I can lean on, then I’ll find that person. What I’ve learnt over the years is that a lot of the chairmen are willing to act as mentors and advisers,” she adds.

When to get a mentor

“Think about what it is that you need in a mentor; a set of skills, a particular network or understanding of how things work at a level you don’t get to see, a way of operating that differs from your own that you can learn from, and then ask around,” says Heidrick & Struggles’ Clements.

“Ask HR. Ask your colleagues and build a picture of who the most talented people are in the areas that you need. Then ask. People can be shy in doing this, however, most executives that I know have taken a request like this as a compliment and will often want to help,” she adds.

When you have identified the right skill set, then make sure that this comes with the right person, advises Clements. She says the success of a mentoring relationship can often depend upon the both you and the mentor’s mind-set about this relationship.

“If you have a mentor who is doing it for the CV-build, or a well-meaning mentor who is so very stretched in their own career that they simply have no time to dedicate to you, neither of these options will really work.

“You must be able to form a strong, enduring relationship with a mentor and be prepared to put in the effort to enable them to get to know you well. Good quality mentors will spend significant amounts of time with you at the outset of the relationship, getting to know you personally and professionally both in the work context and outside work, to enable them to provide the best advice,” she advises.

Internal or external?

Internal and external mentors will play very different roles and will see you through different lenses, so ideally you should engage with both, says Clements. She says an internal mentor will focus on helping you to navigate your way through a specific organisation, which can be invaluable to your career while you are there, while an external mentor will provide a ‘whole market, whole career’ perspective without knowing the nuances of your current employer. “Engaging with both is therefore the best option,” she says.

“Internally, they will ideally be someone who can form an ‘apprenticeship’ relationship with you; someone who is not directly involved in the management of your compensation, as this can undermine the effectiveness of the mentoring.

“He or she must be able to demonstrate a level of EQ that ensures that they can empathise with you and form a trusting personal bond while having the skills and experiences that you are seeking to develop, to enable them to provide sound advice and judgement. They will also be in a position to see ‘the bigger picture’ within the organisational and help you to navigate politics and hurdles.

“Externally, ideally a small group of potential mentors will be identified through your network or, failing this, you will engage with a professional mentoring firm and/or your professional body, who will be able to recommend suitable mentors who have the skills and expertise that you seek to develop. You might also seek the help of recruiters to identify mentors, as they have extensive connections and are likely to know who will ‘fit’ you best.

Can a senior CFO still benefit from a mentor?

“We should never stop learning, no matter who we are,” says Clements. “A senior CFO can benefit from a mentor who may be a former CFO, a chairman, or a CEO or senior adviser, where technical finance skills are less relevant and navigating Boards, company politics, governance and specific strategic issues will be higher on the agenda,” she says.

Peter Lynas, CFO of aerospace and defence giant BAE Systems, sought the opinion of executive director Peter Gershon, now chairman of National Grid, when he was finance director of GEC Marconi’s defence business. “Peter was a tough guy but always fair. I worked for him for 18 months, and learnt a lot,” he says.

Lynas’s view: “You can always learn from good people. You can also learn from bad people, about what not to do. But being with good people is far better,” he adds.