What do top performing leaders have in common?

chess gameSo, what do top performing leaders have in common? They’ve all received some form of mentoring throughout their careers to get them where they are today.

In fact, Harvard Business Review surveyed 45 CEOs who had formal mentoring in place, and found that ‘71% said they were certain that company performance had improved as a result. Strong majorities reported that they were making better decisions (69%) and more capably fulfilling stakeholder expectations (76%).

While it’s certainly not a new concept in the business world, but it can be lonely at the top and many leaders find it challenging to know how they’re performing – and what exactly they need to do to be more effective in their role.

As a business leader you have to frequently make decisions concerning matters that have never before been undertaken. In such high-stakes conditions, leaders require wise mentoring with apparent rules of engagement to ensure total confidentiality.

Finding the right mentor can sometimes be the difference between success and failure. By working with a mentor, leaders are able to benchmark how they’re performing as well as be held accountable from a wise role model, someone with genuine guidance based on true-life experiences.

Here’s how some of our top performing members benefited in key areas of their business from having a mentor:

Transitioning into the C-suite 

There are a number of challenges involved in transitioning from a functional executive into the C-suite. By engaging with a mentor who has personally experienced such transitions, new leaders can gain access to perspectives that are uniquely contextualised and personalised. These ongoing relationships are often one of the most important when it comes to giving leaders the confidence to tackle new issues as they arise, particularly in areas that fall outside their core expertise and experience.

This is exactly why Director of Save Sight Institute and Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Sydney Peter McCluskey, was drawn to seeking an experienced mentor.

‘I look after a lot of people, a lot of students and do a lot of administration, plus working as an eye doctor, a researcher and a teacher. Moving to this role was a big, big change and involved a lot of learning on the fly.’

‘TEC has really been a fabulous sounding board for helping me make sure I understand what the problems are that I was facing with personnel, strategy and implementation,’ Peter explained.

As someone who transitioned into a Director role from a research and teaching background, Peter wanted to ensure he had the right skill set, outlook and thought processes to successfully lead the institute, which is where mentoring made a measurable difference.

Building and retaining top talent

One of the many challenges affecting businesses regardless of the industry in which they operate is building and retaining top talent.

Managing Partner of Marsh & Partners Bronwyn Condon found that both external and internal mentoring is essential for retaining and developing employees throughout the firm.

‘We have a mentoring program within the firm where we ensure accounting graduates are getting to whatever level they need,’ Bronwyn explained.  ‘Beyond that is when I get involved directly. That means ensuring they can move from an accountant to a manager role and eventually a partner.’

Bronwyn has experienced firsthand the impact of this talent strategy in action, with a number of different employees advancing their careers within the firm. ‘We’ve got a lot of people who have been here for 10, 12 years who have worked their way up to the manager level. They wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a strong mentor process in place.’

Having the right mentor that understands the importance of a talent strategy is crucial to business success, and leaders who can implement this strategy will set the organisation up for future growth.

Mentoring extends across the C-suite

Traditionally, mentoring is viewed as a one-on-one connection. While this is a still a valuable way to pass on insight, there’s also merit in extending this connection and bringing it into a group situation. Spending time with a group of senior executives, who share similar experience, insights and challenges associated with their respective industries helps to broaden and develop leadership perspective.

That was certainly the case for WBP Property Group CEO, Greville Pabst. Greville believes that the group connection is one of the most important parts of his mentoring experience. By attending both his monthly one-on-one mentoring session and meeting with his peer network of senior executives, Greville is able to project his ideas and refocus.

‘Not only do I have an experienced business mentor, I also have sixteen or seventeen other CEOs that I can talk to,’ Greville said. ‘We can all speak in trust and with confidence and I just think that is a really understated resource that TEC brings to its members.’

Greville explained that a key component of his mentoring experiences is the ability to help keep him grounded, ensuring his ideas and aspirations remain realistic for the future. On top of this, the members’ diversity means that no two opinions are the same.

‘We keep each other very accountable, that’s for sure. We have a vast wealth of experience from all walks of life. It’s been a great learning experience for me’ Greville explained.

Mentoring remains a valuable and versatile method of enhancing business success and ensuring leaders have the confidence, skills and knowledge necessary to make key business decisions. When business leaders fail to seek outsider input for support, their companies can suffer.

Isolation – Are you lonely at the top?

Business leaders often lament that it is ‘lonely at the top’; with few realising just how truly isolated it can be in the boardroom. But just how pervasive is this problem, what are its potential impacts and why does it need to be addressed?

Feeling distant and isolated at the top is not just a matter of people not understanding leaders’ positions and circumstances – it can lead to depression, stress and a whole host of mental and physical health problems. In order to truly feel appreciated, leaders can often benefit from outside advice that without prejudice challenge and deal with issues relevant to business.

This could be behind the prevalence of executive coaching and peer support schemes today. In its International Business Report from earlier this year, for example, Grant Thornton found that more than a third (35 per cent) of business leaders around the world said they have used a business coach at some point.

For business leaders who are struggling to cope with the lack of support and peers at the very top, seeking the assistance of an executive coach or support group can be a wise step to take.

Why loneliness hurts

For many leaders, constant loneliness can accumulate and spiral into problems far deeper than most people believe. This was highlighted in a May 14 2014 LinkedIn article by Thomas Gelmi, in which the author referenced the suicides in quick succession of two top Swiss executives. As such, Gelmi claimed that personal support “is no longer a luxury” for business leaders, and executives would do well to forge relationships with “sparring partners” who can act as a source of mutual support.

The link between isolation in the workplace and depression is not new, and is something that needs to be given more attention if loneliness at the top is to be successfully addressed. UK organisation Depression Alliance investigated the matter in a study earlier this year, in which it surveyed more than 1,000 employees on how they coped with depression.

Depression is the biggest mental health challenge among working-age people and often leads to considerable loneliness and isolation at work

The survey found that a staggering 83 per cent of respondents said they have experience isolation or loneliness at work due to factors such as depression and stress. However, they may not be coping with it adequately – less than half of those who felt isolated said they confided in a colleague about the situation.

Those feeling depressed at work may certainly find it beneficial to have an ear that can listen to them, as 71 per cent of respondents who did confide in a peer said it helped.

Emer O’Neill, chief executive of Depression Alliance, said finding support is key for depressed and isolated workers.

“Depression is the biggest mental health challenge among working-age people and often leads to considerable loneliness and isolation at work,” she said.

“However, many companies aren’t properly equipped to manage employees who suffer from depression so providing support to these individuals in the workplace is essential.”

Such is the impact of isolation in the workplace that a study from the University of British Columbia suggested it is more harmful than bullying or harassment, and can lead to dissatisfaction and health issues.

“Ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all,” noted Professor Sandra Robinson, co-author of the study.

Given the potential harm that isolation and depression can bring, it’s essential that business leaders know what steps to take to overcome the problem.

What leaders want

So what should leaders be doing to reduce the chances of becoming lonely at the top? According to the 2013 Executive Coaching Survey led by Stanford University, while the vast majority of CEOs today want advice and support, not many are actually getting it.

Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.

The study found that nearly two-thirds of business leaders do not receive external leadership advice or coaching. However, practically all respondents admitted they would be “receptive to making changes based on feedback”.

“Given how vitally important it is for the CEO to be getting the best possible counsel, independent of their board, in order to maintain the health of the corporation, it’s concerning that so many of them are ‘going it alone,'” explained Stephen Miles, CEO of The Miles Group, which also played a role in conducting the survey.

“Even the best-of-the-best CEOs have their blind spots and can dramatically improve their performance with an outside perspective weighing in.”

But does having an external leadership coach really generate results? Apparently so, according to the ‘Lonely at the Top: The Importance of Mentoring for Chairmen, CEOs and the C-suite‘ study by IMD and CMi. In the study, the two organisations surveyed a range of business leaders across the UK and Europe and found that 82 per cent reported that receiving mentoring “led to improved leadership behaviours and ability to manage key relationships”.

Mentoring was also helping in other business areas, such as improved strategic performance (71 per cent) and better decision making (69 per cent).

Even in an increasingly time-pressured business environment, CEOs need not go at it alone. By seeking assistance from outside coaches, mentors and support groups of like-minded leaders, they can stay healthy, develop as a leader and drive their organisation to success.