Mary Budd, Consultant

Mentee and mentor

When I joined Shell as a grad trainee sometime in the late Jurassic Period, the world of work was a very different place. The only computers lived in air-conditioned rooms, tended by operators in white coats.

Paper files were moved around on trolleys by an army of messengers, and tea and biscuits arrived twice a day in the same way. There were often still separate pay scales for men and women (guess who earned more…) and the signals of hierarchy were rigidly observed. Managers ate in separate staff restaurants, drank their tea from china cups rather than paper, and had finely-differentiated office décor, depending on their job grade. I once moved into a room in Shell Centre vacated by a senior manager, and a workman turned up in the lunch hour and solemnly cut six inches off all the edges of the carpet. I was too junior for fitted carpet.

A predictable and controllable world

It’s easy to mock. There was a lot that was unavailable, difficult to manoeuvre as a woman or just plain wrong. The world was assumed to be predictable and controllable. I was told at the age of 22 the job grade I could expect to retire from. I was also told that I would never have a proper career in “Personnel”, because a lot of it involved tough union negotiations in smoke-filled rooms, and “girls can’t do that”. I can laugh about that now, after 40+ rollercoaster years in the business of people. Luckily for me, there was something else available, something that was not mentioned in the recruitment literature, or shouted about, because it was simply taken for granted. It didn’t even have a name.

There was a LOT of mentoring.

Then and later I learned my trade from a number of very good managers, many in their 40s and 50s. They gave me opportunities to try things, then spent the time to sit down with me afterwards to talk about how it had gone. They shared their knowledge, and helped me to understand that there wasn’t always a perfect answer. Or sometimes even a very good one. They helped me to look calmly at what had happened, change the way I thought about things and plan to do it differently next time. I learned from their experience, and made it my own. That process of reviewing what went well, what didn’t and how things could be improved is absolutely vital to make the most of the practical things that we do every day. As adults we learn most from our mistakes, but if we move swiftly on from them without taking the time to look back, that learning may not happen. Without the opportunity to reflect on what could have gone better, it’s very easy to make the same mistakes over and over again.

A fast-changing world

Of course, we no longer have offices full of older managers with time on their hands to guide less experienced juniors. In our industry older people are particularly thin on the ground – the percentage of over-50s employed in agencies has hovered around 5 or 6% for decades. Many of my clients these days don’t even have offices, particularly in the tech world. The great upheaval that we are living through means that we will increasingly be working with and managing people remotely.  Sometimes we’ll never meet them in person. Sometimes they are in other parts of the world, with different cultural backgrounds and expectations. The old hierarchies are long gone.

However, mentoring is alive and well, and needed now more than ever. In a world that is changing as fast as ours, driven by technology and new prospects, we all need to keep learning, revising what we have learnt and learning afresh. That can’t mean stacking away piles of technical knowledge in our heads that we hope will last a lifetime. We will be lucky if it is still relevant next month. It does involve finding mentors who are prepared to listen, to ask sensible questions and help us to refine and develop our thinking as we go along. These days my own mentors are much younger than I am, because I recognise the dangers of my attitudes fossilising as I get older. 

And what do I pass on to the people I mentor? I ask about values, and how they apply in the day-to-day hustle. I hope that I help them to see the importance of fairness, kindness and treating people with respect. To me that’s the difference between being a human being and becoming a dinosaur.

Last updated 07 December 2023