CEOs need mentors too. CEOs must keep raising their game—and having their thinking usefully challenged—for the good of their organisations. They must routinely make decisions concerning matters they’ve never before tackled. When have they ever had to spearhead a takeover—or defend against one? Resolve a crisis as the public face of the company? Deal with a board of powerful directors with divergent opinions? These demands require new talents. In the words of one well-known executive coach, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

In such high-stakes situations, CEOs need wise mentoring. That’s not the same as coaching. Although executive coaches are often superb at providing feedback and closing gaps in specific managerial skills, precious few have actually worked in equivalent roles themselves. Mentors, by contrast, are role models who have “been there and done that.” They can offer timely, context-specific counsel drawn from experience; wisdom; and networks that are highly relevant to the problems to be solved. And unlike company-managed mentoring programs, CEO mentoring is driven by the mentee, reflecting a level of customisation rarely provided to people in the ranks.

Good mentors are usually CEOs themselves and unaffiliated with their mentees’ organisations. This profile satisfies three needs: the need for relevant experience, the need for a broad perspective, and the importance of complete trust.

“Relevant experience” usually means the mentor has sat in the hot seat as the CEO of a large or small but complex enterprises. A good CEO mentor has served on multiple boards.

A broad perspective, too, generally comes from the outside. You want mentors who not only think differently but also understand how the company is regarded in the marketplace.

The origins of the term

To understand the meaning of mentoring, it is necessary to go back to its origins. The term mentor is attributed to Homer and his epic work, The Odyssey. In his story, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, embarks on a decade of travel and adventure, leaving behind his wife and young son, Telemachus. Odysseus instructs his loyal and true servant, Mentor, to look after the royal household and keep a watchful eye over Telemachus.

Mentor agrees and acts in loco parentis, becoming a father figure, teacher, role model, guide, sounding board, and friend to Telemachus. Athene, Goddess of Wisdom, sometimes takes the form of Mentor and provides encouragement and support to Telemachus. From this story, the word ‘mentor’ has come to mean a ‘father figure’ or perhaps a ‘mother figure’ (following Athene’s wisdom and advice) to younger people.

More recent understandings

While the term mentoring has broadened over the years and become part of the language of organisations and staff development, vestiges of its original meaning can be found in contemporary definitions.

For example, just as Mentor provided encouragement and support to, and acted as a sounding board for, Telemachus, mentors today play these psycho-social roles (of encouragement and support) when they work and interact with mentees.

Somewhat different today is that mentors are not necessarily ‘father figures’ or much older in years than their mentees. Here the view taken is that mentors tend to be more experienced than their mentees, rather than older in years.

What makes a Good Mentor

A good mentoring relationship is not just about career advancement. A good mentor…

  • Is someone absolutely credible whose integrity transcends the message, be it positive or negative
  • Tells you things you may not want to hear but leaves you feeling you have been heard
  • Interacts with you in a way that makes you want to become better
  • Makes you feel secure enough to take risks
  • Gives you the confidence to rise above your inner doubts and fears
  • Supports your attempts to set stretch goals for yourself
  • Presents opportunities and highlights challenges you might not have seen on your own​