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Mentoring: why honesty pays

Siobhan Sweeney and her mentor Professor Dame Sandra Dawson discuss the ways informal mentoring works for them.

Mentoring handshake

Mentoring doesn’t have to have a formal structure to be effective. MBA alumna Siobhan Sweeney, founder of Cambridge Legal Risk Analytics and co-founder of the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, and Dame Sandra Dawson, KPMG Professor Emeritus of Management Studies and former Director of CJBS (1995-2006), discuss how informal mentoring works for them.

Siobhan Sweeney (MBA 2015), founder of Cambridge Legal Risk Analytics

Siobhan Sweeney

Siobhan Sweeney

I first met Sandra when I was looking into founding the CJBS Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), a uniquely structured platform to support women’s leadership in the business world globally. We connected straight away, perhaps due to the level of honesty we established very quickly. This broke through any formal structure – in my experience, when you speak honestly and openly, it attracts more trust and in turn more honest feedback; ultimately you gain a lot more.

Sandra helps me with a wide range of challenges that crop up. Nothing is particularly pre-arranged or formal. I will drop her an email if there’s something I’d love to get her take on. I have a huge amount of respect for her. She has achieved an enormous amount in her eclectic career while maintaining strong family bonds. Seeing her in action raises the bar in what you think of as achievable. Moreover, having a direct line to her gives me pragmatic insight into how to apply these tools to achieve what I want.

Sandra will listen to an issue or challenge and come back with an array of questions that challenge me in a really positive way while maintaining my independence in decision-making. I’m left with tremendous clarity that might not have been there before. She has particular intuition and expertise in relation to organisational and behavioural issues within management.

One piece of advice she gave me that I’ve found very valuable is to always try to see things from the perspective from others, and to be aware of the different pressures they may be under. That way you can explain the situation in a way that pre-emptively addresses the worries they may have. Startups necessarily involve many U-turns and pivots and managing a team effectively through these changes ensures that each member’s output is optimised.

Mentoring was one of the objectives of the WLI and part of that was getting students to start mentoring at the graduate level. I’ve had several people reach out to me and I’ve always taken them on with great enthusiasm. So I do get enormous enjoyment from it as well and it’s extremely important for the next generation.

What does Sandra get out of it? She is hard-wired to help future generations. I don’t know how she does it, as she has a huge array of commitments, but whenever I reach out to her she always makes time for me.

Dame Sandra Dawson, KPMG Professor Emeritus of Management Studies

Sandra Dawson

Professor Dame Sandra Dawson

I thought that the WLI was wonderfully ambitious in its approach; they wanted to do something Cambridge Judge Business School-wide and find the best ways in which they could make an impact. So, initially, my discussions with Siobhan revolved around that.

In particular, our discussions focused on how WLI might make an impact beyond the MBA, and the way in which one needed to approach wider stakeholder groups within the School and within Cambridge as a whole. In that context, I have very broad networks and so there were lots of suggestions I could make about people who might be involved or who it would be good to keep informed.

We have a very informal relationship, continued since Siobhan completed the MBA. Now she is leading an extremely exciting startup. We have discussions, we meet and we’ve had the odd phone call. It’s not a regular, formal approach. If Siobhan sends me an email or leaves me a message asking to talk about something, or just to catch up, I always respond.

We’ve talked particularly about priorities for her startup – the capacity that she was looking at, how the teams might work together and the areas in which she herself has high competence and high availability of time.

I think there’s also a broader context of the balance of one’s professional work and one’s domestic and home life – particularly for parents with young children. From my own experience, I have three children and four grandchildren. I have a very strong commitment to family and a very strong commitment to professional success. One needs to find the right way for every individual. For people to have fulfilment, it’s not just a question of managing or hanging on, it’s feeling fulfilled in all aspects of one’s life. That is a major challenge for women – it can be for men, too – and if you are sympathetic and you have also had experience in that, then you can be helpful.

Siobhan is bright, she is positive, and I feel that she has got the potential to make a huge success of what she’s doing. And if, in a small way, I can help that, then I would love to do that. Mentoring, for me, is part of life. I love people. I find people’s stories and the way in which they create their lives extremely interesting. There is nothing zero-sum about it at all. It’s enriching for both sides.