What We’re Saying

Learning not lecturing; why mentors are stifling talent

The academic year is over and like many agencies around town the emails have started arriving in to MCCP; freshly minted graduates looking for their first opportunity in the working world. In the past, they were emails with CVs and cover letters. Now they are short notes asking if I can meet for coffee to talk about building a career in strategy. Instead of job applicants, we now have professional advice seekers. And whether it’s an email, a LinkedIn message or a response in an interview, the same phrase keeps cropping up; ‘I’m looking for mentoring’.


The next generation of advertisers and strategists, many of them Millennials, are determined to be mentored. It’s a phenomenon that seems to be fueled by the narratives of success that permeate business. Successful leaders speak of the key piece of advice they once got, or the person who took an interest in their development at a crucial stage. They’re attractive stories. But there are lots of steps on the road to success that aren’t the stuff of great stories. Hard-work, personal responsibility and a genuine desire to take and implement feedback, are the keys to success that everyone forgets to mention.


From the perspective of a recent graduate, this new understanding of mentoring can seem very appealing. It’s a continuation of the learning dynamic that they have been used to for most of their lives. It defers their transition from studying to actually doing, and it replaces hard work with ‘wisdom osmosis’. From the mentor’s perspective it can be equally appealing. Being a person sought out as a mentor bestows a guru status that many people crave and they are willing to dispense career advice piece-meal over coffee with no real knowledge of their mentee. But this dynamic is self-serving and ego-driven. If as leaders we genuinely want to foster talent there should be no great mystery surrounding the route to success.


As an industry, we need to change the way that we work so that experts and novices work together, and learn by doing. The outcomes from the current mentoring phenomenon are overwhelmingly negative. The new employee don’t progress, develop or add value, which creates tension and frustration. The agency remains totally reliant on its senior people, becoming top-heavy and stagnant. The industry suffers because the flow of young, talented, energetic workers is stymied. Most importantly, the work suffers because there are no new ideas, no fresh approaches and no future thought leaders.


We all need to take responsibility for this. It means changing the conversation in interview and pre-interview stages. It means resisting the urge to fall into the guru role. Most importantly, it means taking on young talent and having a structured relationship, built around frequent interactions, coaching, hard work, and mutual respect. Training happens on the job, every day, by senior people in the agency. Growing talent should be an apprenticeship, in the real meaning of that term, where an experienced person passes along their knowledge and skills by working together with your trainee.


I don’t want this idea to be confused with internships of the sort that have crept into our industry over the past decade. Interns have been taken on to do valuable work, for low or no pay, because some companies saw the opportunity to get cheap labour under the guise of ‘experience’. I firmly believe that internships have done more damage to the flow of talent into the industry than anything else; creating a situation where some talented young people now can’t afford to take a step into a professional context without suffering undue financial hardship. A true internship is a short, structured arrangement whereby a person, usually a student, gains insight into and experience of a particular industry. An internship used in lieu of hiring for an entry level role is just exploitation, plain and simple, and it’s an exploitation that has become far too common.


At MCCP we believe that there are five key elements to fostering talent the right way. First, the basics have to be taught. This needs structure and method. The new team member needs to be trained in the core techniques that should become second nature as they progress. The skillset of the job, getting the basics right, is the foundation on which every successful person is built and every successful project stands. In MCCP, we call that ‘Pride’, one of our values. Without the basics being properly taught, all the new recruit will do is produce pale mimicry of what they witness being done by more their experienced colleagues. There is a damaging narrative that permeates that strategy and planning can’t be taught. Anyone who says that is bluffing about their own knowledge and skill. If you know it, it becomes your duty to teach it.


Second, is real work; at MCCP we call it ‘Rigour’. New team members need to do work that matters. That doesn’t mean they are given a client brief with no safety net. It means that they get the opportunity to make a contribution to the ultimate output in a way where they can see the value of their contribution, but also the difference between their output and the ultimate output. If they feel like their work is simply a research paper, which someone else will craft, they will never obtain the sense of ownership and responsibility that is key to development.


Third is ‘feedback’. A culture of honest and structured feedback is the key to growth. This means that feedback must be sought and given on an ongoing basis. A bland set of KPIs and an infrequent review doesn’t cut it, and never did. At every level, there is always room to improve, always something to learn. By fostering an open environment in which feedback is part of the DNA, and flows in every direction, an agency will never stagnate. MCCP’s value is Bold; where people are mature enough and confident enough to recognise that they always have more to learn.


Fourth is ‘progress’. The regime whereby advancement was about length of service belongs in the last century. Every agency suffers from the “two year” problem. New entrants to the industry start at the most junior level and, and no matter how well they perform, they can never shrug off that ‘junior’ mantle. This inevitably leads to an agency pouring time and resources into training and development only for a competitor to reap that benefit when the employee wants a higher salary and more responsibility. If a new employee can see the career path, ideally one carved out by more senior colleagues, they are more likely to stay and grow. Progression has to be real and attainable. This is part of our Community value, where collegiality and responsibility meet.


Lastly, is what we call ‘Passion’. The advertising industry is suffering from far too much cynicism and negativity. Too often, people complain and rant about the work or the work they don’t get to do and are lauded for it. As advertisers and planners, we get to craft brands that will be seen by thousands, maybe millions. We get to have an impact on the lives and behaviour of vast numbers of people. It’s important and rewarding work. We should be passionate about our role, the work we create and the industry. Negativity and cynicism don’t make it past the front door of MCCP. 


The top tier tech brands introduced policies of only hiring the top five percentile of their disciplines. And it’s because they’ve shown that the top five percent can accomplish more than the next fifteen percent put together. This is a policy that at MCCP we practice. But only hiring the best talent carries with it a responsibility. High performers deserve to have their talent nurtured and grown.


So when the email comes through from this year’s crop of Millennials I’ll only give one piece of advice – the people that see your talents don’t talk about their own careers, they give you real work to do. If you want to be exceptional that’s the minimum expectation you should have and that’s the only thing you should be asking for when you send that C.V

*As seen in the Sunday Business Post, 12 June 2016*

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