Mentoring at Work: Getting Women on Board(s)

Using mentorship to nurture strong leaders

20 Mar 2023 Articles Performance management Recruitment Trending Future of work

For employers, leveraging on mentoring either through an internal initiative or tapping on external programmes can provide a much needed boost for their workforce. Particularly in sectors where specific groups such as women are underrepresented, mentorship is a way to provide networking and coaching that supports career longevity and growth.

We speak to a mentor and mentee from BoardAgender, by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations that helps women advance into senior leadership roles and boardrooms in Singapore.

The mentor, Mr Robert Grome, a former Asia Pacific Leader for Asset Management at PwC, and mentee, Ms Nur Ashikin Ahmad, Director (Digital Audit) at PwC Singapore, share how mentoring can promote greater equity at the workplace.

Q: Why did you decide to be part of a mentoring relationship and how has it benefitted you?

Mr Robert Grome (RG): I believe in the principle of greater equality for women. And I thought that with 40 years of experience in business, I might be able to make a modest contribution. 

During the mentoring process, we talked about Shikin’s career, and more specifically, her interactions with Boards, and also economic, political and business issues as few businesses operate in a vacuum. 

The main advice I gave was to recognise that all Boards are different. You’ve got to observe the people on the Board, how decisions are made, and how to pick your battles. 

I learnt a lot from Shikin’s views as well and found myself comparing her experience with mine at the same stage 30 years ago. Some things haven’t changed; we still want to do good business and serve clients well. But other things have changed; I gained a lot from what she said about technology. 

Ms Nur Ashikin Ahmad (NA): It really helped that Robert was someone who understood what I do at work. Not only was he thinking about my role in terms of a Board position, he also considered my executive roles when sharing insights.

Robert drilled into me that I had to “read, read, read” and to have an “international lens”. As a Singaporean, I grew up reading The Straits Times. But with this advice, I also picked up the New York Times and Financial Times. Having an understanding of how the world works, and where it is right now, has really been very important in the way I communicate with my clients and in how I manage a team. Robert’s advice was also often along the lines of finding someone within the group who is aligned in terms of their thought process or ideas. While it might be difficult to push for change yet finding allies would make it easier. 
Q: What are some challenges faced by women who want to advance into leadership roles in the audit industry?

NA: The sector is well known for having long hours. While we take in a good mix of female and male undergraduates, once we get to the senior manager rank, we start seeing females drop off because they start families. 

It’s a matter of looking at how we engage them: how do we support you through these next four, five years so that once you get to the six-year mark, you are still with us? I had a good mentor in my reporting partner, who understood how he could help me when I had a child – by shifting timelines, or talking to the team to see how we could support one another.

Q: What is your advice to women who want to seek out a mentor at work? 

RG: Choose your allies carefully. I’ll use words like “genuine”, “trust”, and “fair-minded”. In your job, you cross paths with a lot of people. People have reputations within the organisation, and it takes time to work out who might be a good mentor. The individual must be willing to help, have something useful to pass on, and not be looking for something in return.

NA: If after two or three rounds of conversations it gets a bit too hard or seems awkward, be open and ask, what can we change? This could include the topics you talk about, or what you do when you meet. When I was a mentor to an undergraduate, they took me to a shooting game and we had conversations after that over bubble tea.

Q: How can organisations promote a mentoring culture?

RG: In some organisations, they force the issue by assigning people mentors. From my experience, this may not turn out well because the chemistry isn’t there. Or, there is no emphasis on how important the programme is to the organisation, so it is wrongly perceived as being an administrative task. 

What is the P&L (profit and loss) objective of mentoring? I think it is keeping talented people whom you’ve gone to great lengths to recruit. You want them to have a long-term career with the firm – rather than lose people because of neglect, and then incur greater costs to replace them.