Mentoring: how women can benefit

The FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring Programme has had six years of pairing chairmen and chief executives of the UK’s largest companies with nominated senior women executives from other companies.

Building on this network, the programme – founded by Peninah Thomson, partner at Praesta, an executive coaching company, and Helen Wyatt, senior vice-president of human resources at Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods conglomerate – has launched a regular networking event for mentees and their mentors to share ideas, challenges and experience.

Helen Owers, chief development officer, professional division, at Thomson Reuters, the media and data company, is being mentored by David Tyler, chairman of Sainsbury’s, the UK food retailer. She says:

“Prior to this, I was managing a $600m business with 4,000 people in 20-odd countries around the world. A year ago, I embarked on a journey to get a non-executive role. Thomson Reuters has been keen to get more of its executive women into non-executive roles. I’ve been working on understanding more about corporate governance, working on my CV and working with headhunters for about a year. It’s actually relatively easy to get on the list, but securing a role on the board is much harder.”

In future, Tyler says:

“I would probably ring up the headhunter and say, ‘I’m Helen’s mentor. Is there anything you’d like to share with me that I can use in my discussions with Helen for her to move further?’ They might open up a bit more to me than others.”

Michael Treschow, chairman of Unilever, adds:

“I’m a strong believer [in mentoring]. During a long life, that diversity is a key enabler to be successful. If we look at all the dimensions of diversity, the biggest weakness is gender. We need to change a lot of things, not least the culture.”

His mentee, Joanna Place, head of customer banking at the Bank of England, says:

“I am at the point of my career when I’m thinking about direction, and [the programme has] given me space to really think aloud in a very safe environment. Michael will bounce back and challenge my thoughts. That’s really valuable. Safety and challenge – those are key benefits.

“I run about 120 people in my part of the Bank of England, and I do make profits but it’s not like having a P&L. I don’t necessarily tick boxes in that what I offer are skills and knowledge of the regulatory sector but it doesn’t necessarily fit into [headhunters’] word searches. I have to sell myself a bit more because my CV doesn’t say, for example, ‘finance director’ on it.”

As we left the lecture theatre to join colleagues for lunch, the two FTSE chairmen, Treschow and Tyler, exchanged business cards and agreed to meet for lunch. Their two mentees waited silently while this brief exchange took place. The contrast was dramatic and illustrative of something Treschow says:

“As boys, we play in football teams and are natural networkers, while girls play in pairs with their single best friend.”

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Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

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Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

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Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

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Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

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Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.