Someone to talk to

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Desert Island Discs may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for a blog on mentoring but that’s where this one started. Martin Sorrell of WPP was talking to Sue Lawley in a recent Radio 4 programme, about his business success and the support he had had from his father who had offered him a listening ear and sound advice. Martin’s view was that everyone, no matter how senior and successful, needs someone to offer an outside perspective; someone who has no agenda of their own who can offer support as a mentor, as a sounding board.

The old adage that “it’s lonely at the top” is true for every chief executive placed at the apex of an organisation, bridging the channel between trustees and staff. There are some things which cannot be voiced up or down the communication chain and sometimes leaders need some thinking time to consider options before they become decisions. A good constructive and trusting relationship between Chair and CEO will work for many to help think things through but there will be times when it would be inappropriate or unhelpful to share raw thoughts or radical ideas with people inside the organisation.

Some CEOs request and are granted an external mentor paid for by their employing organisation and this can often be a good investment. Voluntary sector organisations though always put beneficiaries first and many CEOs would be reluctant to ask for money to be spent on them as individuals (seeing the use of a mentor as if this were a personal indulgence rather than an essential part of keeping them effective). Many CEOs use an informal mentor and find a trusted friend as a confidante who can allow them to let off steam and explore ideas, though this can wear out friendships pretty fast if overused.

But it’s not just CEOs who need someone to talk to. Part of the role of every line manager is to provide support to the people who report to them and a listening ear can often be the most practical service to offer at times when individuals are trying to work through problems and find solutions. It can be quite a challenge to listen in a truly unbiased way and help the person reflect and reach decisions for themselves, for which they can then take responsibility.

Listening is not a passive state – it requires time and attention and concentration. Some people are naturally good listeners and tend to have empathy and an interest in people which enhances their ability. For those who find listening much harder than speaking there are methods which can be learned and finding a course on mentoring or on appreciative enquiry or the appraisal interview will help improve relationships and communication.

As well as helping with decision making, creating space to reflect is a key part of learning. Finding someone who can act as a sounding board – a friend, colleague or manager – will help cement your learning and joining action learning sets, online discussion forums or other groups which provide the opportunity to reflect and consider new ideas can be very powerful and supportive.

Someone to talk to is helpful in good times and bad so get out there and find yourself a listening ear and offer yourself to others – it will do you and them the world of good.