Only 35.2% of FTSE 350 food and beverage leaders identify as female or non-binary. That’s why Grant Thornton have partnered with the Food and Drink Federation and Odgers Berndtson to facilitate a free mentoring programme to accelerate progress in gender parity at senior levels across the industry.

We’re always happy to answer any questions about how our Accelerate mentoring programme pairs female and non-binary leaders with compatible mentors, but many potential applicants have a much bigger question…What is mentoring?

To showcase how mentoring can help women and non-binary leaders succeed, we decided to bring together people who can share their experiences of building productive relationships with mentors, women and men, who have helped them understand and realise their goals.

The event started with a brilliant speech by Roisin Donnelly, a hugely experienced and respected executive and non-executive director in the food and beverage industry. Roisin shared her experiences of working with three different mentors who all offered her valuable advice at different times in her career and life.

Roisin Donnelly: sometimes you just don’t know what to do

“For the first ten years of my career I was unaware of mentoring. I assumed if you over-performed and over-delivered you would move up. But, when I did reach Board level, there was nobody else like me on it. I had to ask myself ‘is this right for me?’ ‘Is this right for my life?’

I needed guidance from a successful woman who was also a married mother. The early conversations with my first mentor were great: she said “if your boss knows your job they’ll tell you what to do. If they don’t, you can have fun!”

“Who’s telling you you’re failing?”

"I started working with my next mentor when I went to a new company in California. I was excited to join a Board that was 90% female. It was completely dysfunctional, and the business was spiraling.

I had a lot of self-doubt about my ability to do the job and I just needed some perspective on how to succeed. So, I went to my mentor. He asked me a really good question: “who’s telling you you’re failing?”

Well, not my boss, or my boss’s boss. My mentor explained that if you’re your own biggest critic there’s no hope, but you can coach yourself.

By the time we moved back to the UK, my daughters were five, three, and one, and, surprisingly, still not completely self-sufficient. I needed another mentor.

She told me, ‘you can do it all, but not at the same time. ‘Make a decision about what you’re going to do and do it brilliantly. Make a decision about what you’re not going to do and don’t feel guilty.’

When I was younger I thought of careers as ladders where you just climbed up. All three of my mentors helped me understand that it’s actually a map, where you can explore lots of different destinations, to find somewhere broader and richer than what’s directly above you."

What makes a great mentoring relationship?

"A great mentor is a critical friend. I’ve mentored many people myself and I know what they need to bring to our conversations: understand what they want, be completely transparent, and open to new perspectives. Sometimes you just don’t know what to do. A mentor is someone it’s okay to share that with. It’s a very different relationship to the one with your boss. Both of you can be honest about what is and isn’t working. And another good thing about speaking to a mentor, no matter how experienced or senior, is that you don’t have to do what they say.”

How did Accelerate work for Ruth and Claire?

After Roisin’s very well-received speech we watched a virtual conversation between one of our pairs from last year: Ruth Simpson and her mentor, Claire Bocking. The conversation was facilitated by Jenn Barnett, Head of ESG and Inclusion, Diversity and Equality at Grant Thornton. 

Ruth is Group Customer Strategy and Planning Director for Princes Limited, while Claire is currently Managing Director of Immediate Impact Ltd.

The conversation showed why a really successful mentoring relationship is much more than a senior person telling a junior colleague what they know. The mentor needs to do as much listening, and learning, as the mentee.

Watch the video to learn about Ruth and Claire's mentoring experiences.

Q&A: different perspectives on mentoring

The event was rounded up by a highly engaged Q&A session. Ruth stayed on the call to speak to us virtually and we were also joined by Sarah Baldwin, CEO at Purity Soft Drinks. The questions covered everything from the benefits of having an external or internal mentor and the differences between mentoring and coaching. Sarah explained that for her mentoring allowed you to have someone devote real time to letting you bear your soul, something she didn’t see so much in coaching. She also pointed out that as well as achieving long-term goals, mentors can help you with really simple things…like not taking phone calls in your car!

Ruth explained that her relationship with Clare had started as mentoring and then evolved into coaching and bounced back and forth. She pointed out that if your mentor has the capabilities you should just do whatever works best at the time.

A final question asked about how companies can ensure that Boards are inclusive spaces for women. Roisin explained that we’re often told to treat others how we want to be treated, but what we actually should be doing is treating them how they want to be treated.

The event finished with Danielle Price, Head of Human Resources at the Food and Drink Federation, reminding us why fostering the success of female and non-binary leaders is about more than shaping individuals’ futures – it’s about ensuring nobody finally arrives in the boardroom to discover they’re the only person like them in it. She asked attendees to return to their businesses and spread the word.   

For more information and guidance on how Accelerate works for mentees and mentors, get in touch with the Accelerate mentoring team.