Learning from life: what I learnt from having a straight-talking mentor

word mentor on colourful wooden cubes

This month Michelle Parry-Slater reveals what she learnt from a bold and very exacting mentor

At a recent meeting, I heard about a new venture the Charity Mentors Network. Mulling the subject over on the train home I had a few flashbacks to mentors I’ve had – their range of skills was an interesting reflection. Suddenly, I literally recoiled in my seat as I remembered that mentor! Once the people around me realised I wasn’t crazy or having a fit (I really did jump when that mentor popped into my brain), I was left to my thoughts.

It was 2014, my business was just three months old. I was having fun at a speaking gig that my friend and colleague Perry Timms had helped me secure. As I discussed the power of storytelling, the illustrator, Simon Heath was immortalising me as a cartoon cave person, after all we have been using stories for learning since the Stone Age!

It was weird. Why help me, a stranger?

After the presentations, a person came over to say they enjoyed my thinking and asked if I wanted a job! That was a bold move. Of course, I declined as I wanted to give my new business a go. They suggested we meet for coffee as having been in business a long time, they could offer help. It was weird. Why help me, a stranger? Yet I found myself agreeing to meet. 

Emotional questioning

We met in a coffee shop and I was grilled! It felt like a tough interview. What is the purpose of your business? Why do you think anyone should buy from you? Why you and not all the other consultants? What is your elevator pitch? What are you charging? Why will anyone take you seriously? You are not charging enough to be credible!

The grilling went on and on. I answered as best I could, but soon found myself stumbling and tired. Thinking in the moment became more difficult as my emotions started to rise. Self-talk and imposter syndrome flooded in. I wanted it to be over. I made my excuses and escaped to my car. I cried – buckets! Asking myself: “Was I playing at this business thing?” “Were my fees really not credible, after all I deliberately set them low so charities could afford me?” “What was I thinking?”

As I drove home I went through the full range of SARAH* emotions.

*The SARAH model of change: Shock, Anger, Resistance, Acceptance, Hope

It had been such a shock for a mentor to be so brutal. How dare they! But the anger ended up with me, as they were actually right – why would anyone buy from me? What is a consultant? Did I just have a lot of specialist subject knowledge and a logo? I wasn’t focussed. I wasn’t holding myself to account by working on my business as well as being in it. I set to work.

That conversation pushed me to learn how to be better at business. I should know why I charge what I charge. I should know what I am trying to achieve. I should know how I help customers. I should have an elevator pitch. It is more than OK to be as ruthlessly focussed on my own business as on my client work. With this clarity, I’d became better able to help more people with their people development – this was the work!

Supportive help

Years later I bumped into that mentor at the theatre. I said thank you. Confused, they asked what for. When I shared, they were mortified. “I cannot believe I made you cry. I’m so sorry. I was trying to be helpful”.

The lessons here are numerous, but I will leave you with these lasting thoughts. As a mentee, contract the relationship thoroughly and at the outset. As a mentor, understand the boundaries, no matter how well intentioned the feedback. And for all of us, be more Perry by giving a leg up to a newbie to help them out of their cave.

Michelle Parry-Slater

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