Richard Branson once said: “The spirit of mentoring should be embedded in all businesses,” and here at Virgin, we couldn't agree more.
How did your mentoring relationship with Holly start?
Our relationship goes back over five years. Richard wanted me to see if I could help Holly as she was thinking about her longer-term career options, after having qualified as a doctor. It was important to help her understand fully the structure of the group and its incredible assets and then to start thinking about what her best role might be within Virgin. So we gradually got to know one another and started a dialogue which has continued to this day.
What does mentoring mean to you?
I think the core objective of mentoring is simply to try to help an individual make the best of themselves. It’s providing an independent sounding board for questions or anxieties to help the mentee to take decisions and then go about achieving what they want to achieve. With Holly it’s very straightforward – she’s very together and has a strong sense of purpose.
There are not many things more satisfying than feeling that you’ve been able to positively help someone develop their career. That’s really all a mentor should look for as a measure of success: have you made a positive difference to somebody’s sense of achievement? And you get a lot back too. As a mentor you have to try to see things through the other person’s eyes; that’s a very positive experience and it teaches you a lot.
For example, my conversations with Holly have certainly changed my view of what purpose means in business and what the balance should be between profit and positive social effects and outcomes.
How are Holly and Richard different?
They are both very similar and entirely different! I think that’s a feature of great parent-child relationships. One of the Branson’s greatest strengths as a family is their very open and mutually supportive relationships.
Holly, like Richard, has a strong sense of what she wants to achieve as a professional and as an owner of a great business.
Bringing to life the principle that business should be a force for good is at the core of what she wants to achieve in life. It’s great to work with someone who is so clear about objectives. You can be in mentoring situations where people are always plagued with uncertainties and this can be really difficult.
What does mentoring mean to you?
To me, mentoring is a way of sharing your loves, your knowledge and your experiences, in order to help develop someone else’s skills. You also learn a lot about yourself along the way.
You work very closely with Peter Norris who could be seen as your mentor at Virgin, how did this relationship come about?
Funnily enough, Peter and I both started at Virgin at the same time. Dad actually hand-picked Peter as someone he wanted to work within Virgin. Dad claims Richard Oulton, a friend of his, is the cleverest man he knows - so when Richard Oulton referred to Peter as the cleverest person he knew, Dad called him immediately!
How is Peter’s expertise interlinked with your work?
Although we work on entirely different things, it’s a great combination to put a novice with someone with a wealth of experience.
It’s an interesting time when you’re trying to find your feet in a business and making sure you’re focusing your energy on something you love and can do great things with; and when I was new to Virgin, I was doing just that. I wanted to get around as many of the Virgin companies as possible, to get a real sense of what they were doing independently and how Virgin as a whole was moving forward.
It was during this time that Peter and I started interacting more, as I had endless questions - sitting opposite him meant I could talk through anything and everything whenever it cropped up.
If you could sum up some key things you have learnt from Peter, or things that you would want to pass on to someone else, what would they be?
Firstly, it would be to always pick up the phone to speak to someone, or if you’re near by, just pop over. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for emails, but Peter is a brilliant example of someone who, no matter how busy, will pick up the phone to speak to someone in person, rather than shoot an email. It’s much more personal and you build up a better rapport with people - not to mention avoiding any misunderstandings.
Secondly, it would be apathy; there is no greater feeling than being passionate in life. There are so many children nowadays who have nothing they deeply care about. I find it distressing that nothing has grabbed their attention or they have found nothing to be proud, upset or excited about. If mentoring gives the opportunity to help provide someone with those feelings, which to me it does, then we all need a mentor in our lives.
Lastly, and not particularly work-related, would be to stay active and look after your family. While dedicated to supporting my Dad and Virgin, Peter is just as dedicated to his family. It’s something we talk about a lot here at Virgin - you absolutely have to keep a good work/life balance.
Peter and I have become great friends, and I think Dad likes the fact that he knows someone trusted is keeping an eye on me!
Is there a downside to mentoring?
I’m not sure this classes as a downside, but sometimes Peter can be too nice. I might ask him for help on something I don’t understand, and within minutes he has done it for me. But if that’s the only downside, I’m not sure there is one really!
Peter has been great, I can ask him for advice on just about anything now… to be honest, I’m not sure what I’d do without him.
What advice would you give to someone else considering mentoring?
I think everyone is worried about not having enough experience to help someone else, but we forget that age alone is experience. At 32, without even realising, I have learnt a lot and would like to think I have lots to share that could help someone younger.
Have you got any personal stories of metoring that you would like to share? If yes, then please do so below...
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