Being a mentor

I’ve always benefited from having mentors.

Now, it’s been my turn to offer an ear, some support and guidance, and I love being able to help wherever possible.

Mentoring can mean lots of different things. On the Digital Action Plan it can be quite specific to a set of skills, tools or overcoming some fears.

Elsewhere, it can be much more general advice about careers and professional relationships. In this way, I’ve been mentoring two people I respect and whose energy is refreshing.

Both of these approaches have been through formal mentoring schemes, but I think the value for the mentees – and for me – has been in the lack of structure to the relationship.

We’ve been ‘matched’ to a certain extent. I like to think all three of us are fairly quiet, hard working, ambitious. But that’s where it ends. The scheme (so far) hasn’t dictated that we talk about careers, skills, inter-personal communication or contacts.

My default is always to feel like I should mentor people about digital. In actual fact, the lack of structure has given my new friends and I the licence to discuss what’s holding them back, or exciting them most, about work.

The insights they provide in to their working worlds help keep me in tune with the realities of working in big organisations: the opportunities and the necessary risks. It’s a reality check – they haven’t always had the easiest of rides.

Their needs give me a different project to focus on. Something I can keep ticking over in the back of my mind but without stringent deadlines, contracts or budgets to worry about.

Mentoring helps me practice listening and observation, without judgment.

The result of this is that I feel able to give (hopefully) clear, frank advice and suggestions. And the feedback is that they find the chats useful, even if we don’t always agree.

It’s hard to put ROI or evaluation on this sort of unstructured relationship. So when it comes to mentoring schemes, join them, support them, be part of it. But keep it loose and unstructured, for maximum benefit.

Leaders: what don’t you know?


There’s no shame in being in a position of responsibility and not knowing how to tweet. Or perhaps you don’t really like social media, after, y’know, what happened with the bullies and your daughter when she was at school.

Your son builds websites in his bedroom, and The Sunday Times keeps running features about Code Being The New Maths in the schools, and the basis of survival for British industry.

At work; digital, social media, or whatever, keeps appearing on the senior management team agenda. So far, you’ve nodded along to the strategy – move customers online, attract millennials on social media – but fortunately your division hasn’t had to contribute any time or money.

Jane over in retail tweets a lot and talks a good game, but no-one can explain to you how this helps her meet her targets. Russ in operations always has a new gadget on the go, but the one time you read his blog, it came across as, well, a bit preachy.

The problem is, Tom who used to do your job was seen as a bit of a digital pioneer, and it’s only a matter of time before people start asking you when you’re going to pick up that baton. Plus, you’re really pleased with Nadine, Guy, James and Lucy – the latest recruits to your team – but you feel the pressure from them. They see opportunities to use the web, but you just don’t get what they’re saying.

Time is the big issue. You struggle to keep on top of an inbox and calendar, let alone have the phone bleeping away with yet more alerts. If that’s even what happens? You don’t really know.

You know digital is part of The Plan, and that it will have more of a bearing on your career in the years to come. But what is it, and how can I do it, usefully?

That’s the story of Amy. In the past six weeks I’ve met Amy, Jane and Russ in a variety of organisations. All of them successful, all of them in ‘leadership’ roles.

Sometimes they have opted to meet me, other times I’ve probably been an annoyingly vague entry in their diary. A blinking red light reminding them that they haven’t done much learning and development in the past year.

Ignore the technology. Focus on your audience

Either way, I’m asking them to each take a slightly different approach to digital. For Amy, we’re ignoring the tech, the language and the strategy. We’re focusing on what she needs to achieve in her role, and where her audience are online. We have been thinking about how the channels her audience use might help her understand the audience better, and how she can listen to these, little and often.

Most importantly, she’s going to talk to her team and find out what they already do online, and how these skills might help the team’s objectives.

Amy is also thinking about she can empower her team to work with a digital mindset. This involves interrogating the data that they gather and developing their work iteratively.

Work out loud. Don’t broadcast

Russ’s needs are different. He loves to use social media, but isn’t getting much feedback. Often he’s using it simply to share a status update, or show people where he’s been. Russ is worried about follower numbers and trying to layer digital on top of everything else. So we’re going back a few steps and thinking about how this might actually be useful for him.

This is beginning to look like some reflective thinking – blogging about the successes in his teams, as well as the, er, ‘learning points’. I think I have convinced him that this is proper, brave use of social media, and much more human.

Overcome personal fears. Look at data

Jane has a brilliant team, who she protects and encourages, and she seems confident. However I had a niggling doubt about the depth of her own knowledge and how confident she really is.

Jane’s situation is one of the trickiest to identify, but easiest to solve. We had an open conversation about her experience and feelings about digital – what she does online, how often she uses Google, her fears about security and reputation. Revealing these concerns and an apparent lack of confidence to get online was difficult for both of us, but cathartic.

The result is that she’s committing a little time to set up her tablet so that she feels more in control of the settings, and sharing her new-found knowledge. She has set herself some goals to look more carefully at data, and evaluate her team’s activity more carefully – getting beyond clicks and followers.

Can you help us build digital capability?

We’re recruiting a Head of Digital Capability here at Helpful towers.

As a team, we’re agreed that building skills and confidence among our clients, makes work rewarding for us. We like helping teams to use the Web more effectively, for communication and engagement. You won’t find us running other people’s marketing campaigns, writing ghost blog posts or publishing big strategy documents.

The Head of Digital Capability role needs a special sort of person: someone who is confident enough to remove the mystery around digital, help others overcome their fears and call out misguided ideas when they see them.

Having lots of first hand experience of doing digital in different organisations helps confidence, but more important is an ability to listen and clearly reflect what you hear. That’s because when it comes to digital capability, there’s usually a bit more to the challenge than teaching people. Our clients have outstanding staff who need a more challenging digital brief, or staff who’ve tried to be innovative and had their fingers burnt. Maybe their business model or purpose is struggling without digital, or established processes are holding them back.

Every week is a busy mix of workshops, classroom courses, online learning, writing, pitching and planning. I’ve found it physically demanding, by the time you add travel on top. A full eight hours delivering training in London, then a train ride to Scotland or Wales that evening to run a workshop the next day, is a typical 48 hours.

That said, we’re fully committed to flexible working, and giving people the tools to do their job wherever they are. The current team work a mixture of part- or full-time, from home and the office. We work to meet deadlines, rather than to be seen to be busy.

Action plan dashboard

If I haven’t put you off so far, good.

You’ll need to be able to stay positive about the potential of your work. Winning new opportunities is only the beginning: when organisations ask for help with digital, they still need lots of convincing.

Back at the office you’ll be responsible for our overall approach to capability: developing the Digital Action Plan platform, the content we use to motivate, explain and inspire, and managing the people who help us deliver.

If this sounds like something you want to do, please get in touch.

Leaving the Civil Service

I’m leaving Business, Innovation and Skills in July, to join Helpful Technology. I’m sad to be leaving government, but excited about my new job working alongside Steph Gray and his very clever colleagues.

The past five years working in the Civil Service have been amazing. I have learnt an awful lot about digital, management and getting things done in the public sector. But I have also missed the imperatives that came with working for a small business.

I am hoping to capture the best of both worlds, by delivering exciting things like the Social Simulator, Digital Gym and brilliant intranets, to public and private organisations.

The world of digital in Government was very different, even as recently as 2009. The arrival of GDS and soon after I started was a relief for someone like me, who doesn’t know their HTML from their Linux (just don’t tell my new team). Government digital was a really welcoming community back then, and continues to be so today. I’ll miss not being on the inside of that community, but I suspect there’s plenty of room for people who are a tiny bit more patient than I.

Personal highlights from my time in the Civil Service include:

And what wasn’t so good?

  • I learnt the hard way that I was definitely not cut out for private office.
  • My web chat for Andy Burnham on Mumsnet was a baptism of fire.
  • I only wrote five papers in my whole time in the civil service. The rest of my work is on this blog or this one. I probably should have written more papers.
  • Pushing through things like hot desking, new skills and spending less time worrying about hashtags, was, I think, the right thing to do in the long run. But in hindsight I probably made a lot of people’s lives quite difficult for a while, and I don’t feel great about it.

So, plenty of experience to take with me to my next adventure and lots of new friends made.

My current role is being advertised, and the deadline is 11 June. Let me know if you have any questions about it (and sorry about the hot desking).

Shoe leather

I often wonder what the true cost of going to work really is. I’m thinking in particular of everything that comes on top of your commuting costs and the clothes you wear.

If you are carving out a career, or simple trying to maintain one, you’ll be spending a certain amount of time and money on your network. Whether it’s 2MB of data for Skype, a £3 coffee or a good old fashioned lunch (liquid or otherwise) – none of this is free.

Not-quite-official conferences, travel and a bit of shoe leather – not everything can be lost on an expenses chit. And why should your employer foot the bill for everything?

I think there is an opportunity cost that some people absorb. Maybe it’s their personal equivalent of a ‘new business fund’. They invest in that coffee, bus ride or flight, on the off chance that it may lead to something exciting in the future.

In an age when it is difficult to be certain about work, this sort of approach is invaluable. In my experience it is also what separates people in the workplace.

I am not saying for a minute that those who spend money on buying other people lunch, or lavish coffees on their contacts, will have any more chance of progressing a career. But it represents a mindset that cannot be ignored.


This has been a good week. Mainly because it has involved lots of conversations with real businesses, real people and getting some proper, direct feedback on Government support.


Sat listening to feedback that was both brutally honest and quietly reassuring in equal measure, three business owners all put the same thing on their wish list: a mentor.

That word covers all sorts of roles and forms of support, but it got me thinking about the mentors I turned to when I worked in the private sector. What makes a good mentor? And what differentiates a mentor from a kind boss or an inspiring presenter?

I’ve been lucky to work for loads of great people. Too many to list here, without causing lots of embarrassment and making this post even more tedious.

But the people I consider to be professional mentors are the ones who I find occupy my thoughts every week, if not every day. They didn’t just teach me a skill, or help me out with a project. The way they conducted themselves in business now forms part of my character. Or at least, I like to think that it does.

There are three mentors in my mind, each of them with very different, but never conflicting, attributes.


If I ever find myself short on motivation first thing in the morning, last thing in the afternoon, or any time of the day, I think of Richard.

Richard is one of those people with boundless energy. Not the silly over-caffeinated type that you know are artificially hyper active, but someone who can turn the most staid of office environments into an engine room.

He helped me realise the value of digging deep when to-do lists, clients, funds or time is stacked against you.


It’s always easier to procrastinate, do nothing, blame someone else, or focus on another task.

Ian taught me that this only leads to failure. If I’m ever tempted to ‘park’ a big problem, or pretend that money is not my number one driver for going to work, I see him standing next to me saying: ‘you need to get from here to here’ (pointing at opposite sides of the desk), ‘we can either go straight across, or zig zag’ (still pointing at the desk). ‘Zig zags are more painful and there’s no profit. Which is it to be?’


When times are tough, you need someone who can help you see clearly.

Times were very tough when I worked with Bernard. He helped me to take the emotion out of some difficult decisions. Cheques for huge amounts of money were simply that. They weren’t life or death. Spending time simply worrying about problems wasn’t going to solve them, either.

Now, I hope, I spend more time worrying about the stuff that really matters at home, and less about decisions at work.

These are my mentors. Recognise any of their characters?

Image courtesy of

Difficult conversations

Scene from American Pie between father and son
This scene from American Pie is the definition of awkward

Difficult conversations are an awkward, but essential, part of life. In the office, at home, on the street.

Difficult doesn’t just mean breaking really bad news, but might also include giving feedback at work, complaining in a shop, or talking to friend about a health issue.

I can’t believe for a second that anyone actually enjoys having difficult conversations (except, perhaps, for professional hostage negotiators and Alan Sugar). I certainly don’t enjoy them, either as the instigator or audience. Having been on the receiving end of a few difficult conversations, I’d like to think that I can be empathetic when it comes to raising them in the first place. There will be a handful of people out there from my personal and professional life, past and present, who, if they happen to read this, will completely disagree!

For what’s it worth, these are the points I think about when it comes to having ‘that’ conversation:

  • It’s a conversation first and foremost. That means face-to-face, not email.
  • Prepare. What is the key message; how are you going to deliver it; what are the likely outcomes?
  • Be crystal clear. When I’m nervous, I dance around a subject. The chances are, whoever you are talking to won’t get the message, making things more awkward.
  • If you think you may have been too blunt, or gone too far, then that’s probably a sign that you have got the balance just right.
  • Have a clear call-to-action. You have put the time and stress in to making this conversation happen: there needs to be a result or action.
  • Think about the person or people concerned, and set the scene accordingly. Literally; move tables and chairs, or engineer the meeting to happen in the right venue, according to how formal or otherwise this needs to be.

Moving on…but sticking with the Civil Service

I’m leaving the Department of Health in a few weeks time, to join the digital team at Business, Innovation and Skills. I am very excited to be joining BIS, but at the same time sad to leave Health.

I joined the Civil Service in 2009, and this was my first foray into the public sector. I didn’t know what to expect other than a massive change in working culture and practice.

I came from a background of journalism, small publishing businesses and creative agencies, where I’d be tasked with everything from writing interviews, to managing cashflow, human resources and making tea. Sometimes successfully, often by the skin of my teeth, and with some notable failures too (an upside down magazine and the web project from hell among them).

But I was wrong about the ‘massive change’.

In actual fact, the challenges of communicating information, of publishing, of embracing new technology, are pretty much the same. Sometimes I miss not having a profit margin to focus on, but I don’t miss the roller coaster of small business.

Sure, I still get frustrated by some of the bureaucracy I encounter. However, it strikes me that these same mechanisms ensure staff and suppliers are, for the most part, paid on time, and contribute to a professional atmosphere. These are some of the things that create tremendous pressure when running a small business.

Bowler hat on a bench
I've seen very few of these around Whitehall

And the Civil Service isn’t the old fashioned institution that my friends would have had me believe, back in 2009 when I told them where I was going. I realise I am lucky, because digital is interesting, evolving and Government has a reputation for innovation. But I also spent a short time in private office and never once saw a bowler hat or anything produced in triplicate.

Call me naive or challenge me on any of this. I’m keen to hear your experiences.

I hope I can bring a bit of my first-hand experience of the front line of business to my new role in the Civil Service, and build on the good work that’s already happening. If you’ve got ideas about business, Government and the web, then drop me a line.

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