leadership

How leaders can build a mentoring culture

Leon Gettler /

feature-mentor-200When Boral dumped its hard-driving chief executive officer Mark Selway earlier this year, its board was sending a signal to the market about the kind of management companies need today.

Technical and operational skills are no longer sufficient to get ahead; more companies in the ASX200 realise that managers now need soft skills, and mentoring is one of them. More boards now recognise that if managers don’t have those soft skills, they can’t do the job. Soft is the new hard.

Mentoring is a subtle kind of leadership. It cannot be forced; it is based on the willingness of both parties to learn (the mentee) and to teach (the mentor). It is a relationship built on real feelings of respect and regard. It is most effective when it is based on encouragement and support from the mentor, and inquiry and openness from the mentee. It involves informal but frequent exchanges between the two sides that are satisfying for both parties.

Nicky Wakefield, Deloitte Consulting’s national leader of human capital, says operational skills can only take you so far in your career today. “I think you get to a certain level of leadership or management through technical skills and you hit a ceiling at a particular level, unless you have very good leadership,’’ she tells LeadingCompany. “I absolutely believe mentoring and coaching is a key strength of really exceptional leaders.”

Sacking leaders for a shortfall of soft skills would never have happened 10 years ago. The skills shortage has changed all that. Companies now realise that soft skills are not only critical for career development; they are a skill that helps them hold on to their talent.

Selway, a change agent at the building material group who was getting runs on the board, is a case in point. Hired in 2010 as a self-proclaimed “Mr Fix-It”, Selway put the company through a massive overhaul with writedowns, cost-cutting and the sale of underperforming businesses. He had programs that identified waste and ways to add value through selected criteria such as cultural awareness, visual management, error proofing, continuous improvement, quick changeovers and level production.

But he got staff offside.

They complained that he micromanaged to the point where they had to have clean desks every night. In the end, after a reported verbal brawl with Boral chairman Bob Every, the board decided to cut Selway loose despite his improved business results.

The board told the market it wanted a “a chief executive with a leadership style suited to harmonising the changes that have occurred over the last two years throughout the ­company”.

Significantly, Boral’s new boss, Mike Kane, was last week telling the business media that he had a different style and that he was not a micromanager. He was, he said, first and foremost a talent manager, one who gives his managers the opportunity and stays out of their way.

The talent equation

Michael Donovan, who has written Australia’s only manual on mentoring, The Art of The Business Mentor, says Boral had recognised the risk of losing talent. There would have been a lot of pushback from people who had to work with Selway, he says.

“The board may have said we risk losing more people whose combined talent is greater than this person because we are hearing from others in the organisation that while it’s been good for the business, you can’t keep doing that,’’ Donovan says.

“The old style of skill that goes back to Jack Welch is the anachronistic style of management.

“You’ve now got to have leaders who can bring people with them. You can’t do that if you’re dominant, egotistical, if you don’t listen and if you have low emotional intelligence. You’ve actually got to be able to communicate with people and hand them difficult tasks that will stretch them, help them achieve new capabilities to be able to deliver those and then when it’s successful, give them credit.”

The command-control method of management works for companies in crisis, but not once they’ve moved on. “If you keep doing that when the crisis has passed, it actually destroys the incentive for people to keep working for you,” Donovan says.

“It also destroys your succession line. You are either promoting people to be the next in line who are mirror images of the CEO and that’s destructive or you are depressing and pushing out of the business people who want to stay with you, but who won’t tolerate that bullying style of grinding people down.”

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