‘Make a breakthrough in your thinking’: How mentoring can improve leadership performance

Written by Nigel Girling CMgr CCMI Wednesday 09 June 2021
A mentor’s perspective on how to improve the leadership capabilities of an individual leader
Two healthcare professionals talking as they walk up the stairs

I’ve spent a large proportion of my professional life as a professional leadership mentor. The job is specifically to enhance the leadership capabilities of an individual leader – their mentee. The role as a more experienced guide and adviser remains, but the experience is of leadership per se, rather than the specific role the leader holds or the sector in which they work.

The existence of professional standards and professional qualifications in management and leadership – such as those at various levels provided by CMI – indicates that the role of the leader is really sector and job-agnostic… that is, the skills and capabilities are almost entirely transportable from one job, organisation or sector to another. Most of the skills needed – aside from the specific body of ‘other’ knowledge that relates to the context – are the universal skills of leading, engaging, inspiring, uniting and developing people, wherever they happen to work and whatever they happen to do.

Helping to enhance that very particular skill set is the realm of a professional leadership mentor.

In my experience of supporting hundreds of leaders at senior and strategic levels – and hundreds more at other levels or aspiring to future leadership – the job has been to help them to articulate and understand the purpose of their role and the impact they have (or should be having) on others. The purpose of any leader undertaking a professional qualification in management and leadership (at least at our professional qualifications school at IDG) is to become better at the job and to have a greater beneficial impact on the performance and lives of others. Just getting the qualification or a bigger salary seems like such a missed opportunity and an insufficient return on the considerable quantity of time, thought and effort that such an endeavour requires.

When seeking to improve performance, it’s wise to start by understanding expectations:

  • What level of performance is required?
  • What capabilities are required to deliver it?
  • What results and impacts should the leader be striving to deliver (including impacts on the performance of others they need to influence)?

As a leader and manager succeeds largely through the performance of others, this last point in particular is crucial.

The leader’s understanding of this is effectively the ‘target’ they are aiming for. It should provide the underpinnings to their plans to be an effective leader and their own CPD (continuing professional development). Leader CPD, especially in the early part of their careers, is often aimed at enhancing their CV and making them more promotable and that’s fine… as long as it is also focused on making them a better leader, for the benefit of others and their organisation.

These impacts on the performance of others should also shape the mentoring interaction. It gives, along with the other expectations, some tramlines and areas for exploration for mentor and mentee to discuss. Unlike the role of a coach, in the mentoring relationship it is not only allowed but of great benefit to give advice and suggest options for the mentee to consider.

As a mentor, I always try to present my mentees with a range of actions, ideas and approaches so that they can make an informed choice. I’m not trying to turn them into a clone of me (perish the thought!) but I am trying to help them make a breakthrough in their thinking, to try out new ideas and to calibrate their leadership approach. One of the most significant and performance-enhancing leadership capabilities is to have sufficient options and choices to allow the leader to adapt their style, approach and even language to suit the needs of a person, group, situation or context. A mentor can help that a lot by expanding the range of choices and approaches the leader mentee has available to them.

A mentor of mine once told me that to be truly prepared, a leader should always have at any moment at least three alternative ways of doing something, influencing someone or solving a problem. That advice has been invaluable to me for decades and I commend it to you too.

If you don’t have a professional leadership mentor, might now be the time? If you haven’t challenged yourself before to achieve a higher level professional qualification, might that need to be on your ‘To Do List’ too?

Here are a couple of other great reads about how your leadership can inspire others: high-performance habits and 20 questions to ask yourself about your leadership style


Nigel Girling CMgr FCMI FInstLM FIIRSM FRSA is renowned as an influential thinker and is a regular contributor to expert panels, think-tanks, conferences and professional journals. As a Chartered Companion of CMI, he is one of a select group of thought leaders seeking to transform leadership for the new world. After 35 years as a CEO, influencer and mentor, his articles are often entertaining, challenging and definitely a sideways look at the key issues of leadership.

Nigel is head of centre at Inspirational Development Group (@InspirationalDG).

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