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Networking and mentoring:

How it can help you in your board role

Mentoring and networking are important tools for any board member, but particularly for women, who may encounter more barriers to full and effective board participation than their male counterparts.

The benefits of networking

"Networking" is dismissed by some as a rather sinister, modern concept that involves mercilessly exploiting your personal contacts to push yourself forward. The reality is that networking is neither new, nor sinister.

At its best, networking is a mutual process involving an exchange of ideas, information, experience, support and help. It is about meeting and interacting with people who can be of help to you and who you can help in return.

You already have a vast number of people, or "contacts", in your network – your spouse or partner, parents, children and other relatives, employers, employees or colleagues (current or former), friends and people you have met socially, and people who know you through your activities with the local kindergarten, school, book club, tree planting group, service club and so on.

And you already use your networks – when you ask a former employee to provide a reference for a job, for example, or when you ask a friend the best way to approach their boss for a donation for your tree planting group, or when you ask a colleague to offer their advice on a project they have particular expertise in.

Your networks include anyone you know, or have met, and even your contacts' contacts. More formal networks also exist in the form of professional bodies, women's groups, support groups, special purpose clubs, and so on. A range of networks have also begun to emerge on the internet in the form of chat rooms or more formalised groupings. These networks can give you access to useful contacts in other states or even other countries, contacts that can be of particular use to women joining boards in rural areas (where networks may be limited) or for those whose board's brief is in a field with limited local scope.

You can use your networks for a range of purposes in relation to board work, for example:

  • Finding out about upcoming board vacancies, the reason for the vacancy and what skills are required.
  • Finding out about the reputation of a board you are thinking of joining.
  • Getting access to resources in the area or sector in which the board is operating.
  • Opening doors to people of influence (local councillors, politicians, community leaders, etc.) who may be of use in helping you gain a board position, or increasing the standing or prominence of a board you are already on, or in getting things done.
  • Finding a mentor, or someone you can be a mentor to.
  • Circulating information about your board and what it is trying to achieve.
  • Gleaning ideas about ways to solve a particular problem.
  • Obtaining different perspectives on issues affecting your board.

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is the process whereby a more knowledgeable or experienced person acts as a role model, guide or helper to a less experienced person to help them carry out their role more effectively.

Mentoring relationships can occur naturally or informally – between parents and children, for example, or teachers and students, or senior and junior colleagues, or even between friends.

The benefits of such arrangements have become so well recognised that many organisations have set up formal or structured mentoring programs. Such programs often involve "matching" participants for a relationship that is defined by formal expectations, such as regularly scheduled meetings. There may be a formal mentoring system in place on your board. If not, you should be on the look-out for a person or people who can serve in this capacity.

How can I benefit from mentoring?

Many women who have dipped their toes in the water of board service, and found it not to their liking, have cited lack of support as the major reason for their withdrawal. For that reason, mentoring arrangements are of particular importance and use to women joining boards.

A good mentoring relationship will bring about a range of positive results for you, your board and even your mentor. Your board will benefit from the new skills and confidence you bring to your role and your mentor will derive a great deal of satisfaction and opportunities for personal development.

For new board members, or those requiring a bit of a boost, a mentor can:

  • Help you to identify and develop your strengths and aptitudes and minimise your weaknesses;
  • Reduce any feelings you might have of isolation or of being overwhelmed;
  • Provide support in difficult times and praise and encouragement when things are going well;
  • Guide you in articulating your goals and making plans to achieve them;
  • Offer advice when you are considering various options for action;
  • Introduce you to other board members and others associated with or important to the board you are serving on or thinking of joining;
  • Brief you about the standards and behaviour expected of board members;
  • Act as a sounding board for ideas you may want to test before revealing them at a full board meeting;
  • Explain the board dynamics and how the different board members interact;
  • Provide background information about complicated or long-standing issues the board has to deal with; and
  • Give feedback on how you are performing in your board role.

What should I look for in a mentor?

Not just anyone can act as a mentor. The defining feature of a mentoring relationship is the existence of a more experienced and knowledgeable, perhaps wiser, party. Some board members fulfill this role instinctively and these people can be a boon to those taking up a new or different boardroom role. If such a person does not emerge immediately, it is a good idea to start making some inquiries about people who might serve this purpose.

You can look for mentors on the board you are considering joining – but be aware that you can look beyond that particular board as well. People serving on other boards, or who have done so in the past, can also make good mentors as they will have a good idea of some of the general challenges you may face. If a suitable person cannot easily be identified in the local area, you could consider a telephone or electronic mentoring relationship.

There are some essential traits a mentor should possess:

  • Empathy – It is important that your mentor has some understanding of the challenges you may face during your board term. For that reason, your mentor should ideally be someone who has gone through a similar experience. Thus, for female board members, a female mentor is often the best.

  • Appropriate skills and experience – You need to be able to trust in advice offered to you as you negotiate your new board role so you need to be sure your mentor knows what she's talking about. An equally inexperienced board member may be a good person to compare notes with, but will probably not be the best mentor.

  • Problem-solving skills – At times you may need to call upon your mentor for advice in resolving a particular problem so it is a good idea if s/he is able to think clearly and critically and help you sift through your options efficiently.

  • A good ear – Mentors should not be looked upon as a bodyguard or troubleshooter – their role is to act as a sounding board. Therefore, it is imperative that your mentor has excellent listening skills and the ability to guide you towards making your own decisions, rather than shooing you in one particular direction or another.

  • Discretion – You need to feel comfortable that your mentor will act with discretion and respect all confidences you may impart, and vice versa. Therefore a high degree of two-way trust is essential to a successful mentoring relationship.

  • Ability to suspend self-interest – Your mentor needs to have a strong commitment to your development, and may sometimes need to give up opportunities in order to offer you a chance to grow into and demonstrate yourself in your new role.

  • Sensitivity and responsiveness – Mentors need to be sensitive to their role, keeping in mind they should not be trying to mould you in their own image, but rather helping to enhance your own skills and aptitudes.

  • Generosity – A mentor who jealously guards their knowledge and contacts is going to be of little use to someone in need of guidance, support and occasional advice. Mentors need to be willing to share their resources to aid your development.

  • Willingness – A reluctant mentor will similarly be of little use. You need to ensure that a potential mentor has the time – and inclination – to commit to a constructive and ongoing relationship. A short-lived or half-hearted mentoring relationship can sometimes do more harm than good. It is a good idea to ensure both parties have an idea at the very start about what the expectations will be.

  • Patience – No one should be expected to know everything about a particular board or their board role immediately. Mentors should be prepared to support you through any setbacks. Both parties should also be aware that mutual trust and understanding may need time to develop.

  • Excellent communication skills – You need to make sure that you and your mentor can communicate freely and effectively. A person with a range of fantastic experience is not going to be an effective mentor if they are unable to articulate their experiences.

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