The privilege of being a mentor

The privilege of being a mentor

two women in a mentor conversation

28 March 2022

Sally Twisleton, who is Head of Engineering Quality at Rolls-Royce, reflects on one of her recent mentoring relationships, and on the learning and enrichment she finds as a leader mentoring others.

As a leader in industry, I have a lot of different roles – coach, manager, trainer, strategist, director, doer and mentor. I think one of the greatest privileges of my role is being able to mentor people in the organisation who are in the process of developing their careers. I thought I would use this blog to reflect on a recent mentoring relationship as part of a formal mentoring scheme to support women in our organisation. I hope that sharing my reflections may resonate or spark insights for others, or perhaps act as a prompt to encourage others who may not be mentoring to try it out.

This is the first time I have mentored as part of a formal internal mentoring scheme (previous mentoring has been ad hoc or external to my company), so I was curious about who I would be matched with and what the chemistry would be like. In this instance the match was excellent. She is more extrovert than me, which I think is a positive in the match, as she naturally leads the conversation. Also some research [1] I read recently supports the extrovert in the pair being the mentee if possible, or at least trying to avoid matching a very introverted mentee with an extroverted mentor.

As with any relationship, it’s taken a little while to get to know her and build trust. I think the sense that you are building a confidential and safe space for your mentee to process thoughts and ideas is really important to me and how I mentor. Personally, as a mentor within an organisation, I think it is important to contract that you are acting in service of the mentee and their needs, rather than any organisational agenda – this may be seen as a controversial view but I think it is best for the individual.

One thing that came up in conversation with my mentee quite early on was a struggle she was having and she said: ‘I’d like to tell you about this, as I know you won’t try to go and fix the situation for me.’ The idea of me being a sounding board but not trying to step in and influence what was happening for her in the organisation was important for her.

I asked my mentee what she valued in our relationship and she said, ‘Sally lets me wander off onto other topics and bring me back in without letting the conversation have unnatural breaks. That lets me gather my thoughts organically, rather than in an overly structured way. Knowing Sally is listening is very important. We’ve built up trust within the relationship and that is the most helpful part of it. The unbiased way we can approach the mentoring because there’s no wish to sway me into particular roles or opinions is also a great thing about it. That being said, working close enough together in the business means that Sally can follow the context of what I am saying without too much difficulty, so I think this is an optimum level of separation.’

I found it really helpful to know what my mentee got out of our time together, and I recommend others ask for this kind of feedback.

Clearly my mentee is getting benefit, but I really like Kirsten Poulson’s [2] definition of mentoring, which she describes a ‘learning partnership’ with the idea of both parties learning and generating insights. In my relationship with my mentee this is definitely the case. She challenges me to think differently about situations. Her engineering knowledge is better than mine, so I learn from her, and seeing her grow in confidence and resilience is truly inspiring and challenges me to be braver.

I have also tried to be a little more active in my mentorship by using my network to introduce my mentee to others where she might have needed a different sounding board. I feel it is important to use the whole range of the mentoring spectrum, from passive to active, as much as possible. Hermina Ibarra talks about this in her Harvard Business Review article [3].

Mentoring also encourages me to think about my coaching practice – how I am as a coach and how I am as a mentor. I am more conversational as a mentor, but I also find in this different mode I need not jump too much into advice giving or telling mode. Also my mentee fed back that she would like some more cues on timekeeping during our sessions. As in coaching, I need to work on creating the container, as Clare Pendrick [4] describes her book, Simplifying Coaching, which is the EMCC Book Club book of the month for April. So again this work is great for my learning in coaching and mentoring skills, and I am getting a little better every day.

Working with my mentee gives me the satisfaction that I am genuinely helping another woman to progress in her career. She says, ‘Without someone to talk to and be nervous in front of, I wouldn’t have been able to be confident that I’m doing the right thing for me personally or in my career. When I’ve talked out the nerves and laid it all out, I feel like I can make better decisions.’

This reinforces my belief, backed by my studies, that mentoring is genuinely helpful for women in confidence building and career progression. On top of that, it is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job at the moment!


[1] Rivera-Mata, J; Martorell-Riera, A; (2019) An effective matching method for a scientific mentoring program; Nature Biotechnology; Volume 37, p693–695

[2] A New Way of Seeing Mentoring – benefits for mentors; Kirsten M. Poulsen, Director and Management Consultant, KMP+

[3] Ibarra, H; (2019) A Lack of Sponsorship Is Keeping Women from Advancing into Leadership, Harvard Business Review, August 19, 2019

[4] Pendrick, C. (2020) Simplifying Coaching: How to Have More Transformational Conversations by Doing Less. This is the EMCC UK Book Club book of the month for April, and we will be discussing it on 4 May.

Image: Christina @ on Unsplash