How Can a Mentor Fast-track Your Route to a Board Role?

By Paul Smith, co-founder & CEO //

In a recent article, I talked about the importance of building relationships in order to find work on a board and further your director career. And while this is a huge topic that I’d like to continue expanding upon in future articles, in this piece I’m going to be focusing on a particular, very special relationship that you need to have if you want to fast-track your route to a board role.

Most people are aware of the importance of having a mentor in business. In fact, in one our programmes at Future Directors, we ask the question, ‘Who has a mentor?’, and typically around 70% of people raise their hand.

However, this doesn’t mean that finding and having a mentor is a clear-cut process. Many people often struggle with knowing what type of mentor they need and how to go about getting one.

In this article, I’m going to explain the importance of having a mentor when building a career as a director, steps you need to go through to find the perfect mentor for you and pitfalls to avoid along the way.  

Why have a mentor?

What a lot of people don’t realise is that there are a number of different mentors that you can have. They come in all shapes and sizes, and can help you in your career, around leadership and indeed in your journey towards boardroom success.

Of course, a board mentor is a great way of building a network of connections. If your mentor is invested in your relationship, they’ll be keen to help you advance by putting you in contact with influential figures (then they become a sponsor). However, a mentor can and should provide so much more than that.

Ideally, your board mentor will be someone with experience in the roles that you want to be entering into, and so should be able to offer practical advice and guidance on steps you need to take. But more than that, a great mentor will provide you with emotional and motivational support. They’re someone who’s been round the block, experienced the highs and lows, and can talk you through the more difficult obstacles you’re bound to come up against.

What stops people going out and finding a mentor?

The biggest block that people often face when considering whether to go out and find a mentor is self-doubt. People become riddled with questions about the value that they have to offer. They tell themselves that they don’t deserve to have a mentor or haven’t achieved enough to begin approaching potential mentors.

This is never the right attitude in any line of business, particularly when you’re looking to build an important relationship.

The reality is, if you have purpose and can articulate that purpose, then someone will want to support you. If you’re experiencing problems with self-doubt when approaching potential mentors, then figure out what it is that you stand for and go about looking for someone senior to you who shares similar values.

How to actually go out and get a mentor

As I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of different types of mentors, and the relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be an official one. Of course, sometimes mentorships are set up through your company or another organisation, but at other times they can simply be someone who you casually ask advice of from time to time. The type of mentor that you want to seek out depends largely on your situation.

The simplest and most straight-forward way to begin looking for a board mentor is by starting in your immediate network. Have a think about your senior peers and assess who might be in the best position to guide you forward.

Alternatively, if you’re a little more courageous, there’s no reason why you can’t approach someone outside of your network. Of course, this is a far more high-risk strategy so don’t be offended if the person you approach says no.

The most important thing to remember is that it’s your responsibility to do the groundwork and begin the search for the ideal board room mentor for you.  

Mistakes that ‘mentees’ often make

Not going out and approaching potential mentors because of anxiety or self-doubt is the number one mistake that people in need of a mentor make. However, even once you’ve found a mentor, it’s still your responsibility to be the proactive party in the relationship. Don’t forget, your mentor may have several other mentees beside you, so it’s important that you reach out to them with questions and concerns that you might have.

Remember to keep your mentor in the loop with your progress, and follow through on any connections, referrals or general advice they offer you.

That said, it’s important not to treat your mentor’s advice as gospel. They’re human too and not infallible. You’re not obliged to execute their suggestions, so if something they say doesn’t sit right with you then seriously consider whether it’s the right course of action.

With this in mind, it can be useful to have more than one mentor to float different ideas around and gather second opinions on what you need to be doing in order to advance your boardroom career.

Knowing when to ask the right questions and use your intuition are important qualities for a board member to have, so you shouldn’t be afraid to exercise these traits across all areas of your board room journey… even with your mentor.   

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect methodology to follow when it comes to looking for a mentor. More often than not, the chief ingredient is luck.

However, this isn’t to say that you can’t make your own luck. By working hard, doing your research, articulating your values and purpose, and building the right relationships, you’re sure to drastically improve your chances of finding the perfect mentor to help fast-track your route to boardroom success.