Mentoring: An effective meeting with your mentor

by HCA27 May 2009

John had been a client when he ran the division of a major listed company, and had moved on to become CEO of a large privately owned business, with revenues approaching one billion dollars across the group. Within 2 weeks of starting he had arranged for us to meet over breakfast.

After the pleasantries and general updates I asked John how, in the limited time we had together, I could add value around the challenges and issues he faced in the new organisation.

"I have a number of questions," he replied. "Firstly, what are the common mistakes made by new CEOs What should I watch out for, and where should I focus my time and energy?"

"Secondly, I have some initial thoughts about my team and some changes we may need to make. I would like to test my thinking with you, particularly about the values we have - and want - and the culture we would like to create."

"Thirdly, working for a family owned business is very different to my last role in a public company. How should I manage this situation?"

"OK John," I interrupted, as he continued listing questions. "I get the picture - you have hit the ground running in a complex role and have competing demands for your time. Let's start with your first point." We began to explore the experiences we had each had when starting new roles, complementing this with observations drawn from our work with other clients in first time CEO roles. John also agreed to read some relevant Harvard Business Review articles that I would send him.

The conversation continued over breakfast, focusing on the key challenges John was facing. Since John and I had worked together in the past, he came to our meeting well prepared, recognising that this was one of the keys to an effective meeting. When time permits, sending such questions out in advance, and  hence preparing a broad agenda, will further add to the quality of the meeting.

After ninety minutes together we had discussed the issues and identified some options for moving forward. I had given John some insights about his situation and agreed to read and comment on an email he had sent to his staff. I would also arrange introductions to the CEO of a firm they were having difficulties with, and to a member of our team who had considerable experience working for a global family owned business. John agreed to start discussing values at every team meeting, and to create a framework for assessing the competencies and values of his team. He also recognised the need to avoid getting into too much detail, and allowing people to get on with their jobs.

Agreeing next steps by each party is crucial to running successful meetings. We can leave a meeting with the best of intentions, and a clear idea of what we will do, but these are quickly forgotten unless written down.

One of the benefits of talking to a mentor is that their agenda is focused on the client's success, enabling the client to be completely open and honest. An effective mentor knows what it is like to sit in the leader's seat and face their challenges. They have had the doubts and anxieties, the joy and satisfaction.

Engaging a mentor represents a significant investment of money by the firm, and investment of time by the individual client, who is always very busy doing their job. In our column next month we will look at how to assess the value added by the mentor.

About the author

Anthony Howard is CEO of Merryck & Co. He can be contacted on or via