A Mentor at BBS. The challenge of leading, the joy of witnessing growth.

18 December 2020

Eugenio Sidoli, Senior Executive and Independent Board Member, member of the Advisory Board of Bologna Business School and Mentor for the Hybrid MBA, tells us, in this interview, what it means for him to be a Mentor at BBS.

What does a Mentor do and what was it that made you decide to take up this challenge?

When Professor Visani – Director of the first Hybrid MBA at BBS –proposed around mid-2020 to start an executive master’s course with a strong online participation, versus the presence on-campus, he asked me to support him by sharing with participants my managerial experience, that portion of a leader’s role that has to do with the handling of ambiguous and paradoxical situations that you must tackle with skills you can’t learn in school, but that can only be acquired going through life. In today’s world, we call them soft skills, and they are as fundamental to train a ruling class as the disciplines and techniques that are already taught in every master’s at BBS.

Honing soft skills is a necessity that has emerged quite potently within the macro-theme of managerial training since the digital and technological world has become established. This world requires individuals to focus increasingly on more technical issues, in different professional spheres. For this reason, BBS has decided to integrate the typical MBA discipline classes with a new applied expertise.

I accepted with pleasure, because I believe there’s nothing more motivating than sharing what I’ve learned, transforming my experience into case-studies, and observing students grow.

I will have to manage online group interactions: 40 executives with very different profiles. It’s an interesting situation for me too, because up to now my mentoring, shadowing and coaching experience had been basically one-to-one.

In the world of remote professional interactions, distance-working and lack of human contact on those daily occasions that normally enable us to create and develop a relationship, I too must adjust my abilities to the new context and keep on living up to the role that these times require me to sustain. What a challenge!

Soft skills: it’s an expression we often hear about, although not everyone knows exactly what they are.

Soft skills refer to our personal qualities, our behaviors, and our way of being in society; some are innate, like adaptability for instance, the majority though are acquired and developed through experience, they’re cumulative and can be transferred.

In the first stage of a career, we learn a job and we acquire those technical skills that are necessary to practice our profession authoritatively (hard skills); as we grow, and as we gain the responsibility of leading others, it’s our efficacy concerning soft skills that enables us to build authoritativeness as a leader.

Examples of soft skills are: our communication ability, our way of relating to others, our attitude towards uncertainty, or our ability to manage conflicts.

We can say that soft skills leverage three forms of intelligence: emotional intelligence (the ability to establish contact with the other person), political intelligence (the ability to have a comprehensive understanding of the context and owning it) and spiritual intelligence (the ability to locate our acts into a wider context and to develop the necessary commitment to excel). The territory of soft skills belongs to the area of psychology and cognitive sciences…

How can a Mentor convey their knowledge on a sphere so fleeting, so evanescent, like the soft skills one?

A Mentor is a counselor, a guide, an advisor; someone who has successfully been through experiences similar to those you’re experiencing and can help you accelerate your growth. The ability to transfer experience lies in storytelling, in sharing with examples that are relevant and making those experiences vivid ones.

Through the ‘storytelling’ of your own personal experience, you can establish a relationship with those who are facing a similar experience. Those who walked your road before you are equipped to give you suggestions on potholes, bends, on the roughness and can recommend route changes to avoid dangerous obstacles. This doesn’t eliminate the risk of making mistakes, of course, but knowing the way in which you can overcome your difficult moments can be of great help.

What is the nature of the Mentor / Mentee relationship?

The mentor is at the disposal of the mentee’s – or a group’s – development without having a personal agenda. They do it because they believe in sharing and in the role. In a one-to-one relationship, you choose each other; the relationship is born thanks to an elective affinity. When it works, it’s rich, frank, and trust-based; mentor and mentee grow together. The mentor is the person to whom the mentee tells their ambitions, ideas, projects, and aspirations; a figure who knows how to listen and direct towards both professional and human growth. In a group context, especially if very varied, it’s more complex; not necessarily everyone can benefit from it in an equal measure, but that is precisely the challenge: tugging on their heartstrings and leaving a mark.

Outside the corporate context, a mentor is a “master” broadly speaking, the teacher in high school who was able to make us fall in love with a subject that we wouldn’t have been able to come to appreciate alone.

When we were children, a mentor taught us how to ride a bike; we were given a means, it was explained to us how it worked, and we were given suggestions on how to use it. Then they believed in us, motivated us, and removed the safety wheels so that we could experience the elation of balance, unsupported. They used their discernment to decide when to do it and were brave enough to witness us fall, choosing where to let it happen– for example on a grassy and soft terrain instead of a steep, asphalt slope – offering us, at the same time, responsibility, and feedback, urging us to take a risk and learn from our mistakes.

Let’s make a concrete example. One of the things everyone wants to learn is how to get attention from their bosses. How can you make your boss listen to you?

To be heard we need to work on the clarity of our messages and respect the other person’s timing; for this reason, preparing any communication is a fundamental stage of “selling”. Always. It applies if we want someone we report to listen to us, if we want to be listened to by a colleague who has different priorities and a very busy diary or if we ask our collaborators to focus.

Often, not being heard arises out of bad communication, of previously established perceptions, of biases or insensitivity on the part of those asking for our time when they’re not using it with respect.

We listen to those who engage us. A few clear, effective messages, well-structured in the delivery phase earn you more than a flood of words, they leave space for constructive interaction and build professional respect and trust.

To be heard, we need to manage to stimulate our interlocutor and spur a reaction. The way in which we position ourselves whilst communicating facilitates listening, or it can erect barriers. As we’re aware of it, we can’t leave our communications to chance: every engagement must be well-planned and must focus on a few topics, the important ones.

If we want to be heard – also by our boss – we have to pick our battle, prepare, cut to the chase without mincing words, with a clear sum-up, and leave time for questions.

In order to be heard we need to know how to communicate – it’s a strategic soft skill– and to learn to communicate it’s worthwhile imitating those who can do it well. Communication is an art you can learn. A practical piece of advice: go on TED and watch 50 videos; take notes of what struck you and choose your models, the ones that are closer to you, the personalities that won you over. Then carefully study their tricks and make them yours…


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