Close-Up: Live Issue - IPA mentoring: making experience accessible

Adrian Vickers and Guy Robertson explain how they both benefited from enrolling on the IPA's business mentoring scheme.

ADRIAN VICKERS, FOUNDER, ABBOTT MEAD VICKERS BBDO

The letter from Guy Robertson read: "I feel sure you will be able to stimulate us into growing the business and achieving our long-term objectives." It had arrived shortly after we had met on a "no commitment" basis under the IPA mentoring for chief executives and senior board directors scheme.

I was gratified to have passed this initial test of suitability and aware suddenly of the reality of the responsibility I had taken on. I was also a little taken aback, because when Nick Phillips and the IPA had first put the scheme forward, I must confess I had some slight doubts as to whether putting the wisdom of the elders at the disposal of the mostly under-40 leaders of a fast-moving and changing industry was likely to succeed, in an era and a society and a business where looking to the past for help and inspiration is not a widespread instinct.

Fortunately, I had suppressed my doubts enough to submit myself in advance to a course arranged by the IPA and given by the mentoring expert David Clutterbuck. Just as well, as I discovered that (as in learning, say, to ski or play golf) many of the actions that it would occur to you, untutored, to do naturally are wrong or even potentially calamitous. David describes these actions as the habits of the "toxic mentor" and gives examples such as: start from the point of view that you - from your vast experience and broader perspective - know better than the mentee (the term "mentee" is not in my admittedly rather small dictionary, but there appears to be no more appropriate word) what is in his or her interest; be determined to share your wisdom with them - whether they want it or not - and remind them frequently how much they still have to learn; do most of the talking and check frequently that they are paying attention; neither show nor admit any personal weaknesses - expect to be their role model in all aspects of career development and personal values; never, never admit that this could be a learning experience for you too.

I discovered that mentoring is not teaching, or coaching, or counselling.

It is, in the simplest terms, about making the mentee think about themselves and their business. So the mentor must listen with empathy; share experience and learning; be a sounding board; challenge by asking difficult questions; offer encouragement or critical feedback. In my own case, I have found it particularly important (and difficult) to suppress the instinct to say to Guy "the way we did it at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO was ...", without first considering whether it would be relevant and useful, rather than just an irritating reminiscence.

If you sense from all this that the main impetus and direction in the mentoring relationship should come from the mentee, you would be right.

He or she will be at a stage in their business life where they want to make significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking. So the mentee will establish the goalposts from the start, and then take the lead in managing the relationship in terms of arranging the meetings (typically every two to three months, with e-mail and telephone conversations in between), setting the agenda and updating on developments.

As for me, I'm not sure how much the mentor is supposed to enjoy the process, but I have certainly found it extremely stimulating getting to know and becoming involved with a vigorous and focused agency such as Guy Robertson Partnership, through working with Guy and his partners, meeting many of their colleagues, and sharing (to a degree) the pains and pleasures of their drive to expand both the client list they work for and the services they offer.

It's hard for me to judge how my involvement has helped Guy and his colleagues, if at all, though I have to confess to feeling a certain amount of satisfaction (not to say slight surprise) at seeing how seriously some of my suggestions have been taken. I'm beginning to think being older may have a couple of advantages: you become more confident in your judgments about human nature because you've seen the same behaviour repeated in the same situations again and again; and you become a better listener because it's more interesting than hearing yourself repeat something you've said more than once before.

Clutterbuck says: "Mentees want someone who is human, fallible but more experienced than themselves." I like to think I might at least meet these criteria.

GUY ROBERTSON, MANAGING PARTNER, GUY ROBERTSON PARTNERSHIP

Imagine having access to one of the UK's most successful advertising practitioners, a hotline straight through to more than 40 years of accumulated experience, 25 of them at the helm of what has become the country's biggest agency.

Imagine having the opportunity to meet regularly with and pick the brain of a man variously described as "the consummate account man" and the "doyen of diplomacy".

That is what I was offered when I enrolled on the IPA mentoring scheme in December 2003 and was introduced to Adrian Vickers.

Our first meeting was all about establishing a relationship and I immediately realised that Adrian's laid-back demeanour belied an intensely sharp business brain, and that it all seemed to come so easily to him as a result of a great deal of hard work and background preparation. For me, at least, the chemistry felt right from the start and I knew that if I could effectively communicate Guy Robertson Partnership's issues to him, then I could derive enormous benefit for my partners, our agency and myself.

The fact that Adrian, along with Messrs David Abbott and Peter Mead, had launched his own business from scratch, facing the same growing pains as we have, was a vital ingredient in the mix and many of our conversations relate back to Adrian's experience in the early days of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

I also believe that our decision to spend most of the first year getting to know each other has reaped dividends, as has the time Adrian has spent at our agency meeting the people and getting under the skin of the business.

That has meant that nowadays our conversations are based on Adrian having a sound grasp of the background to any issue, enabling him to read, understand and comment on our board minutes without requiring a detailed explanation of every issue.

We tend to meet every two or three months, with at least one meeting per year in Glasgow and the others in London. In between times, I forward to Adrian notes on any significant developments and occasionally call him if I need to bounce an idea off him. His style of interaction with me is very effective in that he rarely, if ever, disagrees with anything but is not slow to highlight the warning signs when he recognises a potentially flawed idea or initiative.

Like Adrian, I find it difficult to highlight any specific instances where his input has brought a measurable business benefit, but equally I know that there have been dozens of occasions when his agreement has given me the confidence to pursue a particular route or when his carefully worded scepticism has confirmed my instincts that we would be well advised to shelve a particular hare-brained scheme.

His advice on people management has been especially helpful, reminding me of the importance of treating your employees as you would wish to be treated yourself.

He is very much of the opinion that most people respond positively to encouragement, reward and responsibility but in the rare instance they don't, you can't afford to let them stay in the business and bring down the good people.

Clutterbuck states that when the mentor/mentee relationship works best, "your mentor will, when appropriate, push you to think deeper, address uncomfortable issues and set higher ambitions for yourself".

In Adrian Vickers' case, he does what it says on the tin.

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