Nurturing the leaders of tomorrow

In the era of permanent cost-cutting, organisations are becoming leaner, executive ranks are routinely thinned and fewer opportunities for advancement means a regular churn of management talent. The result is that organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to develop wells of experience, corporate history and collective wisdom.

This lack of stability has many unfortunate consequences. Positive corporate cultures fail to take root, an organisation’s stated values falter for want of champions and role models are thin on the ground.

In these lean times, when organisations have few if any mentors on hand, one source of experience is often overlooked: the executive personal assistant. Few employees in an organisation have a more rounded knowledge of a company’s activities, history, culture and values. Their exposure to the highest levels of company business, and generally speaking a greater stability of tenure, makes PAs ideal mentor material.

While it may not occur to a company’s leadership to ask a PA to undertake an in-house mentoring role, it is certainly something that PAs should consider. Apart from providing a measure of variety to their working day, mentoring provides a fulfilling opportunity to develop emerging talent.

Peter Wilson, author of Make Mentoring Work (Major Street), explains that the relationship between mentor and mentee enables young professionals and future leaders to learn from the experience and wisdom of older peers.

“True mentoring defines itself through an experienced professional or ‘elder’ from that business or profession taking the role of mentor (or confidential adviser) and engaging in conversations with an emerging professional,” Wilson writes.

“The essential value from mentoring comes from the fact that reading and ‘doing’ on the job won’t be enough to equip a modern worker or emerging leader with sufficient knowledge to understand and acquire [necessary] skills and experiences.”

These skills and experiences include: handling complex personalities and human relationships; managing stakeholders, power structures and building networks; managing uncertainty and ambiguity; and resolving challenging, ethical and moral dilemmas.

These attributes come so second-nature to the seasoned PA that it may not even occur to them that these are valuable skill sets that would benefit the careers of future leaders.

Wilson says the characteristics of a successful mentor include wisdom, credibility, patience and the ability to communicate directly and clearly. Again: snap.

An issue for busy PAs is likely to be not whether they have the skills to act as a mentor, but the time. That’s true. But it’s equally true that there can be few experiences so rewarding as nurturing the leaders of tomorrow.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher – Leo is a business journalist, author and commentator, and was former associate editor with BRW