The Value of Mentors

Published on December 23, 2019

The Value of Mentors

Last thoughts of the year and time to close out the decade and what a decade it has been! This blog is going to be more than a little self-indulgent but hopefully those that read it will draw something from it. So, with a little reminiscing of the early days I want to highlight the positive influence mentors can bring and also say thank you to those that have supported me throughout my career.

I started my career in 1987 at Lloyds Bank at the bottom run of the ladder, in-fact I was in a basement by Blackfriars Bridge on the banks of the River Thames, so you couldn’t get much lower. I never envisaged that one day I would run my own business.

That journey from a lowly “Input / Output Operator” (Yes, that really was my job title) printing bank statements on IBM 3800 laser printers and loading magnetic tapes on an IBM 3420’s tape drive (there the ones you see in the old NASA films) to Chief Executive would never have been possible without those individuals who saw something in me and then took it upon themselves to invest their time into developing me.

My “overnight success” only took 15 years to shape me into an Entrepreneur, and then a further 17 years making a myriad of mistakes and three start-ups until a successful exit.


Throughout my career I have never gone out and looked for a mentor but for some reason circumstance and serendipity have played a part where they have always found me. Yes, some of them were my Managers, but Managers are not necessarily mentors. There is a big difference here. Also, some of them only stay with you for short periods of time, maybe six months to a year, others I can’t get rid of 33 years later! (Big Smile) and have become dear friends.

I have all the academic and professional letters after my name courtesy of seven years of study at night school. Whilst I had my thinking opened through academia it is not this that has got me where I am today, but a combination of personal drive and ambition intrinsically linked to those individuals who were prepared, without asking, to give up their time to listen, to guide, to question and make me think about what I was doing and how I was doing it that has had the real impact on my career. Not only have they made me a better professional but they made me a better person.

Metaphorically, my mentors have come in all shapes and sizes. It would also be fair to say that some of them weren’t even knowingly mentoring me. However, ALL of my mentors have had one thing in common in that they simply wanted to see me succeed.

Raw Material – A Complete Lack of People Skills

In 1987 I was straight out of school and didn’t have a clue about anything except, I didn’t want to go to university and I wanted to work. I did however have a talent for computing and from the start I had a natural grasp on what an IBM mainframe was doing. I can’t tell you why I could do this, I just could. My brain was a constant sponge hungry for knowledge, and I had an ability to learn at pace. This caused its only set of problems, as though I have always been a grafter my people skills were completely undeveloped and my ability to frankly upset people who had been in the job for many years was un-precedented (another natural talent). 

For all my technical talent I struggled to communicate with my peers let alone those senior to me. In-fact I developed a rather unhealthy lack of respect for those who just couldn’t keep up. It is probably this why I still cringe today when I watch “The Apprentice” (love that programme, always wonder how I would get on?) as I see myself from 1987. 

On reflection this fundamental flaw in my DNA was actually my greatest strength – an ability not to follow the crowd, not to accept the status quo, always searching for a better way of doing something through an enquiring mind are the very foundations you need as an entrepreneur. I just didn’t know it then. 

However, this “raw material” needed to be focused, channelled constructively and developed in the right direction to create much needed experience and learning opportunities. I was lucky I had the right people around me that were prepared to knock me into shape.      

Highs and Lows 

I have had many ups and downs over my career. The highs have been incredible, the lows have been so deep at times it would be a lie if I said I didn’t think I wasn’t going to be able to climb out of the various holes I found myself in. 

This brings me nicely to a story that has always resonated with me from the “West Wing”, (for those that don’t know the West Wing, check it out, it was the best political drama every produced). There is a scene from the episode titled “Bartlet for America” where Leo McGary, the White House Chief of Staff tells Josh Lynaham, one of the President’s Senior Advisor’s the following story…

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Now you have to dig yourself out of the hole, but it helps when you have someone who tells you where to dig and shows you how. That’s the value of what mentorship is all about.

What to look for in a Mentor

I don’t believe a mentor takes you to the next level that’s something you have do yourself. However, their advice and guidance can give you the focus and direction that definitely helps you raise your game if you are prepared to listen and learn. 

To My Mentors Throughout the Years 

I am today without these people being in my life. So indulge me here please… 

Mum & Dad – for instilling my work ethic in me, and the values embedded into all their three children of “Always treat people how you expect to be treated”; “Always be true to yourself and don’t just follow the crowd”; and “No one ever owes you anything in life

Ian Cohen & Chris Hunter – who took an 18-year old boy who had a lot of potential but didn’t know his arse from his elbow and got him to calm down and to focus. They still guide my career even now and I still go to them for advice, 33 years later – can you believe that???

Barry Coleman – my friend and my first Manager who actually understood me and built upon the on-going work in-progress. Never ever afraid to pull me up when he had to and was never phased by giving me a real wake-up call when I got too big for my boots 

John Downey – the man who not only introduced me to project management psychology and how to play the corporate politics “power game” to one’s advantage to get things done, but also taught me there was more to life than just work. Albeit it took me years to master this but his impact on me was enormous, and I am forever grateful for his tutelage

Julie Winterburn – who spent hours listening to me, even when my first girlfriend left me (ah!) and told me on more than one occasion to get a grip! “If you want it, go make it happen!”. One of the very best managers I have ever met

Lance Alexander – for giving me a chance when I didn’t tick all the boxes and someone that always believed in me from the first moment we met. (That was a blast!). One of the pivotal moments in my career joining a small expanding entrepreneurial company – “The HUON Corporation”. Absolutely loved it and my first real steps after 8 years in the corporate environment into what business was really about 

Mike Freeman – “Mentor of Mentors”. The nicest man I have ever met. A man of such great experience and someone who would always give up his time to talk, coach and encourage you even late on a Friday afternoon on a customer site in deepest Scotland missing his plane home. One of the greatest lessons I remembered him teaching me after a really difficult horrible week, when even we had clashed over something to the point of a complete relationship breakdown, “Never go home on a Friday upset, it’s just work, you disagree with people but you’re a professional and you have done your job, so shake hands have a drink and go home to your family”. Come Monday we were best of friends again and ready to take on the world. Synopsis “Learn to let it go, no point holding a grudge, life is just too shortand you are always stronger together”. I and others miss him massively; a truly wonderful human being – RIP Mike. 

Gillian Baker – “Mark, you’re the most unemployable person I know”; enough said, but when it comes from the Lady that broke the glass ceiling in IBM in the early 1990’s and acknowledged as one of the best marketeers in the software industry you can only smile. When Gillian talks to me, I always shut up and listen

Jenny Hedge – Forever grateful for teaching me everything about how Central Government and the Civil Service works – 3 years of daily masterclasses. Best Public Sector education ever. Some-one who became a true friend as we built one of the first (and the very best!) Government Shared Service Centres for HM Prison Service. The “Phoenix Programme” made me famous and was the birth of Certus! (PS: I swear my legs are still bruised from all the kicks under the table at meetings)

Tim Warner – We have worked together for 15 years and the voice of reason behind Certus. Yin to my Yang; I could never have done it on my own. Someone I still constantly go to get his calming perspective. Also, the person I have to thank for improving my English grammar and introduced to me to Latin. (I am fully expecting he will point out every flaw in this blog)

Debra Lilley – For getting my attention and for my constant education in Oracle Product Development strategy and its impact on our company. I have absolutely adored working with her over the years and Certus was so much a better company when she came onboard. One of the very best decisions we ever made.

Richard Haycock – for trusting me to pioneer Oracle SaaS Cloud in UK&I; for giving us focus, direction and encouragement with the Oracle sales teams in the early days. The man who told me directly “Face it, you’re an entrepreneur, stop bitching about it, just accept it and get on with it”. I left his office on more than one occasion with my tail between my legs

Mark Robinson – “The Entrepreneurs Mentor”; the “masterclasses” over dinner and several bottles of red will never to be forgotten during the Certus journey. Absolutely phenomenal insight

And Mr Peter Jenkins (“Uncle Albert”) for making me the sales-person I am today! The difference he made to my personal conversion rates was truly remarkable. Imagine going into every opportunity knowing, regardless of competition, you had a 50:50 chance of winning. Unreal  

Finally, a massive shout out again to Tim Warner, Rob English, Mary Thethi, Ian Carline, Richard Atkins – my brothers and sister in arms. We took on the world and in our own way and changed it in our space forever. Not many people can say they did what we did with Certus. You were the very best travelling companions anyone could have. Thank you.

Last but not least, my wife Natalie. Is she a mentor? absolutely she is as she keeps my feet firmly planted on the ground at all times and as she says I may have been a CEO (now a “Was a”) but not in this house – “it’s bin day and the cat litter needs changing!”

Time to Ride the Elevator

If your lucky to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down” – Kevin Spacey

I find my career is now also changing unexpectedly. Ironically since the sale of Certus, opportunities I wasn’t even looking for or I would have thought I was qualified for are appearing. Also, things I never even thought of doing are materialising not just in business but in my personal life. I am dabbling with the idea of going back to night school to bring my education up to date; I seem to have developed a healthy (or unhealthy depending on your point of view) interest in Politics and Political Science. I guess 15 years of working in Central Government has rubbed off on me and my passion for classic cars and planes has never left me. 

In the business world I now find myself in a small gene pool of those Entrepreneurs that have undertaken a successful exit of a business. I remember many years ago talking to a number of similar people whose ranks I have now joined listening to them say “I would never do it again”. I don’t seem to be in that club for some reason. Only now have I really begun to understand that it is also my responsibility to contribute and give back to the next generation, i.e. send that elevator back down.

No-one can ever make it on their own, so seek out those that have gone before you, meet them and really listen to them opening your mind to new perspectives. Diana Ross said, “You know, you do need mentors, but in the end, you really just need to believe in yourself”. 

My own advice to people is always this “Believe in yourself and Go be Brilliant!’. Serendipity played a large part in meeting people who really helped me. But I am a firm believer in that you create your own luck so go seek out those who can help you. 

As for me turning 51 I suddenly feel I have only just got started. My gut is telling me that the next decade is just going to be fantastic both in business and personal growth.

So, for now I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I will see you on the other side. 

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

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