It’s Not So “Lonely at the Top” – When You have a Mentor!

Posted on
3 Jul 2023
by Justin Kilcullen

Eight years ago, after qualifying as an executive and business coach from the Smurfit Business school in UCD, I began mentoring CEOs and senior managers from the charity sector. It was my way of giving back, having worked with Trócaire  for over thirty years, twenty oft them as CEO.

When I was in that role I always had a mentor and found it invaluable in helping me through those years, both the good ones and the challenging ones. I found it an invaluable benefit to have someone I could talk to openly about my hopes and fears, and challenges, who was able to offer an outside view that was always supportive and frequently challenging in a most constructive manner. 

Since moving into the  mentor role myself  I see the same dynamic being played out with my own clients. The first session with a mentee is often a download of all that is going on..” I have no time to deal with anything strategic, I’m constantly fire-fighting; we are  short of our fundraising target and the fundraising manger is going on maternity leave; we have eight board members and four of them are contributing nothing – they’ve been there for years – the chair is great when I can get to see him  but he’s so busy in his own work he’s never free to meet me; the main funder is making totally unreasonable demands....” 

When the ninety or so minutes are up I ask  “So where have we got to?” The answer is invariably along the following lines: “ That’s the first time I have ever had a chance to talk about all of this, it has been great to get it off my chest,  so what now?”  The first encouraging thing I can say is “You’re not alone! I have heard it all before!” I then give my response along these lines: “it seems to me you have four serious issues, A B C and D, and then some other ones.” Having agreed if I am right, and adjusted if not quite right, I suggest we take them one at a time, session by session, and the most immediate one, as the mentee sees it, first. I explain that all of this will take time, but I can assure them much can be improved and, eventually, all. 

This very prospect lifts the heart. By getting it all out and then putting it back together in an organised fashion a way forward presents itself. In  monthly sessions we will work together, analysing each problem, teasing out possible courses of action. Issues that seemed hopeless begin to seem not so. Mentorship involves asking key questions: what resources do you have? can you better leverage support from the board?  is there unseen potential in the staff? and so on. In answering these clear plans emerge. 

Often my contribution is to share my own experience when I found myself in a similar situation. I have found that a most effective way to do this is, when relevant, to confess to my own mistakes when I was a CEO  and what I did to resolve them. There’s a certain comfort for the mentee in hearing that and a realisation that even if things go wrong it is not the end! 

An important aspect of the mentoring process is that, having got going, it is the mentee who sets the agenda and the pace. The mentor is an accompanier on the journey. As the process proceeds things can change, a more immediate priority can appear, some issues resolve themselves as time goes by. A quick phone call before an important board meeting can steady the nerves. The process remains adaptable to the changing situation. 

After five sessions we take stock. For many mentees this is enough. They have developed a clear strategy, their problems may not have been as insurmountable as they had perceived. For many the real learning has been that while they doubted themselves, having never received any affirmation from the board or chair – a common reality- they have come to recognise that they have been making sound decisions and their confidence has been boosted. 

What has come across to me in my time as a mentor is that the old adage “it’s lonely at the top” is as true today as it has ever been. If you, reader, are in this position, I am confident that you agree with me. This sense of battling alone is a source of considerable stress and even burnout. The recent HR Locker “Job Burnout Report” tells us that charity workers are the most likely to suffer burnout, and my experience is that that certainly includes CEOs and senior managers. 

For me one of the most effective ways for CEOs to guard against burnout is to have a mentor. You are no longer alone, you have a supportive ear to listen to you, and someone of experience to help open up new possibilities for you as you face the challenges of the job. For any organisation, providing that support to the CEO is a really worthwhile investment that will repay itself many times over. 

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