Networking and mentoring: How it can help you in your board role

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.

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 use to people 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.

How can I benefit from mentoring?

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.

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