When I first met my Future Leaders mentor, Zander Mills, it didn’t take too long to discover we both shared a love of Lego.
I’m a self-confessed ‘adult fan of Lego,’ so usually buy the bricks for myself. Zander on the other hand gets them for his children, but admits he enjoys overseeing his little ones’ building efforts!
We both agreed that the thing about Lego is that it’s a really good way to practice mindfulness.
That’s because the interlocking mechanism on every brick is built to exactly the same specification. So, while there are limitless ways to assemble the bricks, the connections themselves work exactly the same every single time. In an age of uncertainty, that kind of consistency is reassuring.
Our common view of Lego wasn’t the only similarity Zander and I shared.
We have between us of a quarter of a century’s experience working in blue light services, Zander as the current head of communications at South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, and me at Hampshire Constabulary, including five years as the head of communications for a national police unit.
I recently moved into a local government role at West Sussex County Council, so it was nice to be paired with someone who understood my background.
Zander felt the same. He said: “It took only a few minutes talking to you to realise that we were very similar. I felt I could be completely myself with you, which I think ultimately leads to a more honest and beneficial mentoring relationship.”
The fact that we had a lot in common was no accident.
The LGcomms Future Leaders Programme has been running a mentoring scheme for as long as anyone can remember. For each future leader, learning from the experiences of our mentor is a core part of our development.
In previous years, mentors and mentees were matched by geography; the closer the pair were, the more likely they could meet in person.
Covid of course put a stop to that this year, with no guarantee of us meeting face-to-face. Or rather, Covid presented the Future Leaders Programme with an opportunity to do things differently.
And so, for the first time, it was decided that mentors and mentees would be matched by personality. The theory being that this would offer us the best possible chance to form a strong connection with our mentor, without having to meet in person.
Mentoring is a two-way experience that requires trust and empathy, which are difficult to develop if we only every talk via MS Teams or Zoom. So it was reassuring to know that, going into our first meeting, Zander and I shared similar outlooks.
We agreed to approach the sessions in a less structured way, meeting roughly once a month, or more often if needed, and to use our hour together to talk through the issues at hand at the time.
After briefly discussing the latest Lego sets, we used our first proper session to talk through the importance of wellbeing, and compared ideas on managing physical, mental and emotional health during these tough times when it seems demand and need are never-ending.
That led naturally in the next session to discussing how we prioritise our work, how we manage the expectations of senior leaders, and how these differ in our respective organisations.
Sharing ideas is great, but some level of challenge is also required, and Zander was good to pick me up on my thoughts on areas such as how best to evaluate the effectiveness of communications.
I spoke with a couple of my fellow future leaders, Emma Lyons and Peter Campbell, about their experiences of mentoring. While they both adopted a more structured approach, they too found real benefit in being paired with someone with a similar personality.
Emma was pleasantly surprised to find that her mentor was someone whom she’d been paired with on a previous scheme.
“My experience of working with my mentor has been great,” she said. “At first, we just talked with little structure, but we soon found our way and I put together some objectives of what I wanted to achieve. My mentor asked me to make them SMART and we’ve used them as a benchmark. We’ve exchanged ideas and best practice and I’ve taken away so many ideas that have helped both me and my team at Wyre Council.”
As a result of being paired with someone of a similar personality, Peter from Surrey County Council feels he’s made a connection that will last beyond the Future Leaders programme.
“The idea of testing to ensure mentors and mentees were compatible certainly worked in our case,” he said. “We bonded from the start over a number of shared interests and personality traits. It also provided a certain confidence that we would get on in the early stages, so there was a reduction in anxiety during those first meetings that enabled us to lay foundations to develop our relationship. My mentor has helped me to identify areas that I can work on through tough but sympathetic questioning and allowed me to find my own solutions.”
Back to the Lego and Zander is currently helping his daughter fix her Frozen ice palace, while I’m working on a winter display in time for Christmas. Lego has been around for nearly 90 years, proof of the enduring appeal of its potential for imaginative play, and opportunities to push ourselves as builders to create something more spectacular each time.
You could say the same about the Future Leaders mentoring scheme; with the right connection, with the opportunities for creative challenge, and with the best-suited mentor, it will no doubt open up a world of possibilities for all of us on this year’s programme to build on our strengths.
Tim Feltham is Senior Communications and Engagement Manager, West Sussex County Council and part of the Future Leaders 2021 cohort.