Everything you need to know about mentoring in the Covid age

Sharing experiences with a good mentor can bring a new perspective, home truths and provocative ideas. Here, we find out how leading CMOs and enterpreneurs are embracing and driving a new approach to mentoring

Wisr's friendly morning Zoom has brought insights for mentors
Wisr's friendly morning Zoom has brought insights for mentors

Discovering mentors was “life-changing” for Nick Bell, an AFR young rich-listed entrepreneur whose now more than 1000 employees in seven digital businesses are spread across 12 offices in eight countries. 

“I think I could have fast-tracked my career if I had mentors early on – I didn’t get a mentor till I was 35,” Bell tells CMO, not completely unaware of the irony as to the speed of his career. “I thought I could do it all myself and didn’t need anyone’s help. It was the wrong mentality. Then I met a gentleman, through the YPO network, and developed a relationship that completely transformed who I am as an individual and a business owner.” 

Bell believes mentoring enabled the $39 million sale of his digital marketing agency, WME.

“I'll be honest, when I sold my business five years ago and if it wasn't for my guys I lean on, I doubt that acquisition would have gone through,” he says. 

In August, Bell launched Lisnic, a mentoring platform which matchmakes mentees and mentors. It’s his seventh company following his six digital agencies. Bell and other digital entrepreneurs mentor clients wanting a digital focus alongside Lisnic’s mentor list, which includes successful executives, FMCG leaders, sportspeople and celebrities.  

Bell himself relies on a group of 10 mentors today, now all together in the same WhatsApp group. These individuals have expertise relevant to particular areas of his life such as property, software-as-a-service, FMCG and relationships. He contacts the group “almost daily”, gets a response within minutes and knows the people with the most relevant expertise will call.  

On Mondays, Bell runs seven Zoom huddles with his general managers of each business, which used to be held standing up to encourage brevity. He also runs senior management huddles and runs another daily for the full team of First Page, his Singapore digital marketing agency that has just launched in Melbourne. He used to be almost constantly on the road to physically attend but that has all changed. 

Nick Bell, CEO Lisnic mentoring platformCredit: Lisnic
Nick Bell, CEO Lisnic mentoring platform

Mentoring transformed

In the past 20 years, mentoring has moved from something that was often hierarchical and for a chosen few. It usually came from very senior people handing down knowledge that was career-focused and often centred on training or a focus on a particular skills area. It’s gradually become more holistic, in line with society’s concept of health now encompassing mental health and wellbeing. Mentoring, too, now includes more general workplace challenges, personal goals and focuses on work-life balance. 

Mentoring under Covid has added less formal elements and encompasses a wider range of topics as family or personal life spills onto the desk and work across the dining table. Many say it’s more needed than ever, not only because of the challenges of working from home. 

“It’s more important today than ever because to be effective and have more impact, marketing people need to be good at influencing and working with many different people across their organisation,” says Mark Lollback, who has mentored for The Marketing Academy for many years. The former GroupM CEO is on gardening leave and setting up a marketing consultancy.  

“One great way to do this is to be mentored by a more experienced person who can guide them in this leadership skill.” 

Bell believes senior marketers need more mentoring because marketing technology is evolving so fast, they need different perspectives and skills to keep up.  

Fiona Le Brocq, Medibank Private senior executive, brand and marketing, customer and portfolioCredit: Medibank Private
Fiona Le Brocq, Medibank Private senior executive, brand and marketing, customer and portfolio

Medibank Private senior executive brand and marketing, Fiona Le Brocq, is another who sees old misconceptions about mentoring being dispelled. She acknowledges several people in her team who have mentored her informally.

“It doesn’t have to be formal. And mentors don’t have to be senior – that's a limited way to think about it,” she says.

“I have many conversations with people from my team who have played the role of a mentor where they have greater expertise than I do. This is particularly so where there have been some significant tech and digital advancements.

“Similarly, I request and receive feedback from my direct reports – we call it feed-forward. This has been incredibly helpful to recalibrate my thinking in a number of areas. We all have a lot to learn from each other, regardless of hierarchy and status.” 

Mark Lollback, mentor and former GroupM CEOCredit: Lollback
Mark Lollback, mentor and former GroupM CEO

For Lollback, mentoring is all about leadership and management rather than about improving any task-oriented skills. 

“Mentoring is not about telling how or solving something but where someone shares a challenge they have and a mentor can respond openly by sharing a relevant life experience and what they learned from it,” he says.

Covid coaching

Le Brocq has found a greater need for mentoring since Covid arrived. 

“Relationships have deepened because we’re all acknowledging we’re experiencing similar things and reaching out more. Pre-Covid, I didn’t reach out to people as much nor did they reach out to me as often," she says. 

Le Brocq herself found her unofficial mentors in a handful of women with whom she’s worked over the years. She taps into their experience and they tap into hers. 

“Mentoring used to be about who I could talk to, to get ahead, help me improve my skills and for professional development. Its scope has been amplified as a result of the way we’re living with Covid because work and life are blending. There’s a dimension of empathy that’s been enhanced,” says Le Brocq.

For Wisr CMO, James Goodwin, changes in mentoring since Covid are more around content as connections and mentoring conversations take place from people’s homes.  

“It’s broadened to include a mental health check because of different pressures, such as being alone or more people at home or dealing with kids. Mentoring has become more flexible in the way we do it and also the things we talk about," he says. "Lockdown has meant we’ve got to broaden dialogue and be more sensitive to more things affecting people.” 

At Bell’s seven companies, wellbeing is supported separately from mentoring by encouraging exercises throughout the day. Health professionals also come in to run training workshops and online mental health support. 

Le Brocq thinks much of the need for mentoring we now see in Covid was already there, just invisibly. 

“Conversations in corridors are gone but we still need that connection. In fact, it’s critical now,” she says. “We need to be intentional about connecting with each other, including our teams who are looking to progress their careers. It has been critical to enable more one-on-ones, not just with direct reports, but more broadly across the teams. The lines here between mentoring and coaching have become a little blurred.” 

Le Brocq has set up a regular ‘open door’ schedule where anyone in the team can book time to talk about their career, a personal situation and how they’re managing the changing Covid landscape. Or it could be a strategic issue they’re grappling with, or support for their return from parental leave. The mentee leads the conversation and Le Brocq works out how to best support them, often including others with whom they can follow up as mentors or as an extension of their support system.  

Le Brocq is among many managers running relaxed sessions for sharing both work and personal things in a fun way. Medibank Private’s weekly ‘all hands’ sessions include celebrating special moments from babies to pets as well as progress with staff members’ people development plans. 

Fun, sharing and connection sessions are seen as building blocks for good mentoring in many firms. Google senior marketing director, A/NZ, Aisling Finch, says it’s important to ‘mix it up’ and make video calls fun and interactive. For example, her team competed in Timberlina’s ‘virtual drag bingo’ one Friday afternoon.  

At Wisr, people are encouraged to be curious, participate, share and learn. One forum for this is daily connection sessions on Zoom that regularly attract about 120 of the finance firm’s 170 staff. Anyone can put their name on the roster to host the morning call for up to 15 minutes and can include business news - or not. Goodwin's highlights so far include being serenaded by the hosts, a scavenger hunt and learning how the ratio of icecream intake in lockdown is relative to happiness levels, followed by surprise deliveries of icecream.  

“As a mentor, you see some amazing stuff come out in the morning Zoom which you might not get in a one-to-one setting,” says Goodwin. “It’s been an interesting time learning different things about people and their interests. 

Goodwin also runs weekly one-on-one catchups with his five direct reports, many are about work but roughly every fourth meeting is broader and about more general goals. Goodwin also does this with his CEO. 

“Mentoring, for most people, is about values. But we take those values as given if you’re working for Wisr so we focus more on behaviours and the ways you meet those values and get things done,” he says. 

Whether formal or informal, ‘being intentional’ is important because mentoring connections are no longer being made organically. We’re not attending events or networking meetings or even casual socialising where we would normally meet people with whom we might at some stage set up mentoring sessions. 

Goodwin agrees the need for connection, mentoring and training has increased since Covid. 

Lisa Stephenson, CEO The Coach Place, coach and mentorCredit: The Coach Place
Lisa Stephenson, CEO The Coach Place, coach and mentor

“Yes there’s a heightened sense of needs and the ability to reach out to get more mentoring, which is welcome: people just have to ask,” Goodwin says. “If people want more connection, we can work on that, or they might want to learn more. And they can because we have offered Udemy courses for the whole company.”  

Lisa Stephenson is CEO of The Coach Place, which concentrates on coaching people to success. This includes mentoring and training mentors for programs it designs for corporates. It also helps individual customers of coaching sessions to analyse their networks to find ideal mentors. 

“Finding mentors is a real stumbling block for our coached clients at the moment. People are saying ‘Oh my god, I’m stuck in my house, how do I find the people who are going to inspire me?’. So we draw a map of their network and ask questions to help them find the possibilities,” Stephenson explains.  

Up next: When and how to build a mentor network and the dichotomy between mentoring and training

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