by René Carayol

Leaders and mentors

Preparing the youth

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Lilian Baylis School in Lambeth, South London, was regarded by many as one of the archetypal struggling and forgotten about inner-city comprehensive schools.

Historically at the bottom of the pile and once even referred to as “England’s worst-performing school” by The Guardian, it was failing by any measure you may apply. So much so, that the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) had placed it under ‘special measures’.

Gary Phillips arrived as the new Head Teacher in 2000, the sixth in five years, and initiated the most incredible of transformations—since 2013, Ofsted has rated the school as “outstanding in all areas”.

Changes this profound and far-reaching usually begin when someone with the ability to influence and persuade can articulate an inspirational (and inclusive) vision of the future. However, that is rarely enough on its own, it also needs a leader with broad enough shoulders to take ownership of that vision and deliver it—that leader was Gary Phillips.

Far too many years ago, Gary contacted me out of the blue and persuaded me to come and give a talk to his pupils at Lilian Baylis School, which was going through its carefully planned transformation towards becoming a technology school.

I can remember it so clearly, it was like yesterday. Gary was an understated but extremely powerful and unmissable presence. The students, the teachers and Gary himself, left an indelible imprint on my mind.

Some 10 years later, we contacted Gary with a view to kicking off a mentoring scheme for his most precocious students. Recent research from Ernst & Young has uncovered that mentors can make a bigger difference to the success of students than even teachers. The power of having someone special in your corner, looking out for you and caring for you has been the catalyst for many great leaders to help them fulfil their potential.

It was a timely coincidence that the UK’s National Mentoring Day was held the same week, as it also marked the beginning of what we hoped would be a groundbreaking mentoring scheme at Lilian Baylis.

I had agreed to deliver a 10-minute address taken from my new book, Spike, to the pupils in Year 11.

As they gathered in the gym, they were smirking and laughing, as we would expect teenagers to do. As I was introduced by Gary, they were instantly polite and attentive.

As soon as I opened with my usual mantra, “Everyone in this gym has a stand out inherent strength and we call that your Spike”, a number of teachers came in. Perhaps it was to help keep order but no marshalling was necessary. Before long, they were also sitting, tentatively curious about their own Spikes.

After sharing that “time was better spent fine-tuning your Spikes to the highest standard possible, rather than becoming obsessed with working on the things you were really not that good at and consequently, did not enjoy”, I had their undivided attention.

This was initially an anathema to all the teachers present, they shifted uncomfortably in their seats a little and smiled awkwardly.

I took many rapid-fire questions from my eager students.

Most of the girls asked questions that suggested that they didn’t believe that they had any of these ‘Spikes’. It didn’t take long to start winning them over with the conviction that everyone in the gym probably couldn’t master everything, but could definitely be a star at something.

They were soon buzzing.

Gary had briefed me proudly that his Year 11 students were something very special indeed. They were in their final year and were bright and hardworking. However, the teachers felt many of the girls appeared to lack confidence and self-esteem.

As they now bounced towards the doors, the boys shouted their thanks and disappeared. With the boys now gone, most of the girls politely and sincerely came over to give me their gratitude and thanks. They carefully asked more about their potential Spikes—they were very classy indeed.

As we were preparing to leave, one of the girls returned to the gym. She wore a hijab and held her rucksack firmly in front of her, it looked like it was her protection, as she tried to hide behind it.

She stood still and looked at her shoes and summoned all her courage to ask me: “I know what my Spikes are—its history and geography. But the Spike I really want to have is confidence. Can you please teach me the Spike of confidence?”

She was special and had touched all of us with her honest self-deprecation.

Luckily, we were able to help her on the road to confidence by later introducing her to a fabulous mentor. They meet at the school on a monthly basis.

I went back to visit them again a few months ago. She has been completely transformed. When she came to meet me, her rucksack was now hanging over her shoulder. She stood straight whilst speaking and was wonderfully self-assured with an unforgettable and infectious smile.

Confidence, no less—quite possibly, a well-hidden Spike.

Absolutely everyone can be a winner if they find and embrace their Spikes—there need not be any losers anymore.

Seeing is believing

I started my own leadership journey at the quintessential British retailer, Marks & Spencer (M&S). I was given the responsibility of running the very new audio/visual team who ensured that all the major clothing department reviews were displayed in the best possible light.

To be summoned to the large conference room fifteen minutes before the beginning of the ladies’ lingerie department’s season review could only mean one thing—the IT equipment was not working properly.

And there was precious little time before the Board Director responsible, Joe, was due to arrive. Thankfully, it was a small issue that was easily resolved but before I could leave, the review had begun. At this time, ladies’ lingerie was one of Marks & Spencer’s most important departments and the company had a near 40% market share of UK lingerie at the time.

The conference room looked spectacular. There was a vibrancy of colours, expensive silks, eye-catching lace, most hanging on the walls around the huge conference room but some carefully and lovingly fitted on the most beautiful of models. It was mesmerising.

There was a gap beside the stage where I stood, enthralled by the proceedings, when, suddenly, the doors burst open. In walked a large entourage of suited male and female managers.

Joe came in with a supreme air of confidence and self-belief, but not a touch of arrogance, unlike many of those who were walking in behind him.

From the moment he entered, he was throwing out greetings and kind words for everyone he encountered on his way to the stage. He now calmly addressed the audience, thanking them for their hard work and letting them know how wonderful the range looked, before setting the tight agenda for his three-hour review.

He wanted to look at the ‘product’, check pricing, understand the profitability and compare it to the previous season. But most of all, he wanted to see whether they had pushed themselves even further than the previous year, which had been an outstanding one.

At that moment, he noticed me standing by the stage and asked me what I was doing in the conference room.

At this point in my career, I don’t think I had ever seen a board director, and certainly had never spoken to one, so in a choking voice, I muttered: “Just ensuring everything is OK”.

Joe said with a mischievous smile: “I thought that was my job”, and everybody laughed. It broke the ice and the collective anxiety, but at my cost. Seeing that I was clearly embarrassed, feeling small and looking out of place, he asked me what my name was. I just managed to choke back “René”.

He asked me to come and join him at the front on the stage. He announced that “René will be performing the review with me”. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe or move.

I had barely sat down and, already, in front of everyone, he was asking me what my job title was and where I worked.

He then asked me what I thought of the range. Not seasoned enough to understand the politics of the situation, I took the question at face value and answered: “Not bad at all, but I have to say that I thought it was much better before they made the final changes before you arrived.”

I had been there earlier when lots of the real creative displays were removed upon the sharp instruction of a late-arriving senior manager. I sensed that those who had spent the night carefully putting these garments up with such care and attention to detail were crushed by this rather sweeping diktat.

With very little understanding of the bigger picture or the politically correct approach, I responded to Joe’s gentle probing and told him everything ‘unvarnished’ in front of the lingerie department’s finest!

Despite my gauche style and language, it was an unbelievable moment. A huge learning point for me—when things are going well, it should never just be about the task at hand, always spare a thought for the feelings of others. This was a lesson that was about to be brought alive for me by a true master operator.

Joe went on to provide individual feedback on almost all of the garments. He commented on the quality of the fabric, colours, pricing, volume and who the manufacturer was. He consistently used the most positive and encouraging language but after a while, even I could work out that he actually wasn’t that pleased with what was being presented to him.

He was saying things like: “I can see what you are trying to achieve, but I don’t ever remember it doing that well for us. Can you think about it again please?”

“I really like the fabric but I’m not so sure about that particular shade.”

“I completely understand why you are being so ambitious with these garments but maybe you’ve pushed it that little bit too far.”

This went on for nearly three hours.

He was jovial, well-mannered and good-humoured but in the end, he completely decimated the range. Crucially, he did this without ruining morale or making any individual feel as though they had wasted their time and efforts. It was a masterclass on how to deliver tough feedback without ruining the feelings of those who had worked so hard, but had got it so wrong.

At the end, he stood up, with me by his side, and gave a beautiful summary that motivated everyone to try that little bit harder and said he would be back in three weeks for another review. He delivered this so authentically and sincerely that the chastised audience were encouraged to look forward and become excited about having to do it all over again. Now, this is inspirational leadership.

This was the first time in my career I had actually been in the presence of a great leader.

It was a masterclass of sensitive and positive communication underpinned by a strong emotional connection, brought about by Joe’s incredible humility. He made it so easy for someone in my position, as a relatively new and junior Manager, to bridge the gap with him, a fully-fledged Board Director of the UK’s most admired company at the time. I desperately wanted to be able to do that. Who doesn’t want to be liked and admired?

Grab every opportunity

As we walked out of the conference room, an opportunity not to be missed presented itself to me and, on impulse, I held my breath and asked Joe if he would be my mentor. Was it courage? Was it a special insight? Who knows. For me, it was obviously the effect his behaviour had on me. It just instantly reflected what I inherently believed was the right way to get things done.

The feeling inside of me could not be denied and I just had to act or I would regret it forever. I might not have had this golden opportunity again and I certainly could not live with that.

Joe was not sure what was involved in being a ‘mentor’. I, myself, had only found out a few weeks before from reading an article in The Economist.

I quickly responded with a short story, comparing our situation to that of the young King Arthur and Merlin. He smiled and we agreed that I would meet him in his office for a chicken salad lunch the following week and he committed to spare me one hour.

Before turning away down the corridor, he shared how this would work—I had to book the meetings in advance with his PA, Sue, set the agenda, and everything we discussed would be totally confidential. And, vitally, the only reason we would continue meeting was that we were both getting something out of it.

The onus and accountability would clearly reside with me. He had already started—he had given me trust and ownership. What an opportunity!

I walked away very quickly, six inches taller. As I turned the corner, I sprinted back to my office. I instantly dived across the desk and grabbed the telephone. I dialled Sue’s number and a warm and friendly voice listened to my breathless delivery. Sue responded: “Is that René?” How did she know that? She said: “Joe called and mentioned that you might call me immediately.”

Come the following Thursday, I sat in Joe’s secretary’s office a full 30 minutes prior to our appointment. Sue knew that I was both nervous and excited at the same time. She shared with me that Joe was the best boss she had ever had, and that he was looking forward to our lunch as much as I was. Her Spikes were clear for me to see and benefit from.

She eventually invited me into Joe’s office; there was a small table laid out tidily for lunch for two, with two Marks & Spencer chicken salads carefully prepared and wrapped in cling film. Joe came over from behind his desk and invited me to join him at the table and he instantly proceeded to give me a good listening to.

Listening is learning

He picked over his salad, saying little but coaxing everything out of me. It was amazing how much I blurted out and in no sort of order.

I tried to remain orderly and structured but he was so good at getting me to switch subjects, to delve ever deeper, and the honesty just sailed out in return.

In no time at all, I was realising the power of really listening. Joe not only heard everything I said but he played it back in a language I could only dream of using. After about forty minutes, he had stopped eating and after encouraging me to eat, it was his turn to speak.

I just listened to every word and every pause, and digested absolutely everything. He knew so much, he’d achieved so much and most of all, he appeared to completely understand and empathise with my career dilemmas and concerns. Time seemed to just evaporate when I was in his company.

I wanted to be like Joe. His candour was delivered with such sensitivity but, vitally, he never avoided honest feedback. Unbelievable brilliance—this was it.

When I left his office, I was now a full twelve inches taller.

I went back to my office and wrote everything down. This was easy, as he had made it such an unforgettable experience.

We were to meet for two years, every month on a Thursday, in his office with me setting the agenda and him providing the wisdom and the chicken salad. A monthly masterclass that always made me feel ‘hungry for more’.

I was amazingly and shockingly promoted three times and I just knew it was because Joe had enabled me to understand how to better ‘navigate’ the complex business that was M&S. But even more than that, I’d had the benefit of what close proximity to a fabulous role model could do, with no training or studying whatsoever.

It was very powerful indeed. I didn’t miss a moment of his advice, let alone a mentoring meeting.

At what would be our last lunch, Joe shared that he could no longer mentor me. I was devastated—what had I done wrong? He did not give me a reason but said it would all make sense shortly.

A month or so later, it was announced that I would be moving from IT to menswear as a Merchandiser. This was a dream come true for me. Most of the board directors at M&S were former merchandisers. I just knew, having been carefully coached by Joe, that without the experience and practical intelligence that commercial acumen brings, at M&S, I could never get to the top.

By now, Joe had moved from ladies’ lingerie to lead menswear. I would effectively be working in his new area now. Unfortunately, even I could work out that it was a potential conflict of interest, as I effectively reported to him now. It was a fantastic opportunity to be working in menswear but in retrospect, for me, it was less about working in menswear and more about having Joe as a leader.

A national mentoring day

There was a time in their lives when even the best leaders didn’t quite believe in themselves.

From Mandela and Gandhi to Angela Merkel and Queen Elizabeth to Pope Francis, they have all had someone who gave them their time, encouraged them and looked out for them—mentors.

Mentors trade in confidence—they are able to give you their confidence and pass on their confidence in you. And as we have all learnt, without confidence, nothing happens.

So, make today your national mentoring day, stop missing out and get yourself a mentor.

Aim as high as you can and do not hesitate, just pluck up the courage to ask for an hour a month of their valuable time. If it looks like stalling, then flatter them. Let them know that you want to learn and be guided by them because of their behaviours and attitudes.

Aim as high as you can as they will have so much to share, the more they have been through.

Aim as high as you can and don’t be put off by potential rejection—you will soon learn that rejection doesn’t hurt at all when you aim really high.

Do not hesitate, go and find that person you so admire and ask them to mentor you.

If you are lucky enough to be asked to be someone’s mentor—find every reason to say “Yes”, and make this a wonderful national mentoring day for someone special.

Steven Spielberg captures it beautifully, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”

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