…on mentoring and the trouble with telling the younger generation the truth
Recently a young actor, newly out of university, called me for advice. He explained that he’d been cast as a young journalist in the new Disney TV adaptation of Jilly Cooper’s “bonkbuster”, Rivals.
The novel is about the bid, in the 1980s, for a TV franchise. But in the true Cooper tradition there’s oodles of love – and sex in the bedroom, boardroom and newsroom. As Cilla Black used to say – a “lorra, lorra fun”.
The actor called because when Jilly was writing Rivals she had rung to invite me to lunch at her Cotswolds home to dish the dirt on life in a regional newsroom. At the time I was working as a young presenter at ITV’s Central News.
I told the young actor it was a wonderfully boozy and convivial lunch, because that’s what you did then.
And of course everyone smoked! Jilly was the greatest fun, and the best observer. But better than all that, she remembered the conversations we’d had and reported them in detail. Accurate recall and curiosity – the journalist’s two best qualifications.
This young actor wanted to know what I was like in those days, what sort of people I was working with and what journalism looked like in the 1980s.
So I told him – no holds barred. Selfish, cruel, parochial, sexist, no mobile phones, lots and lots of alcohol (cocktail cabinets in the editor’s office) and all fuelled by naked ambition and unbridled ego. In all – great fun.
One of the presenters at Central News at the time had been there for what felt like a century. He was said to never venture out of the region because he was frightened no-one would recognise him. His mirror – under the studio desk – was reputed to be the largest in television news.
I explained all this and much more, and to be honest, the young actor sounded disappointed and slightly disbelieving. “Surely it wasn’t really like that?” he said.
I’m afraid so, I told him.
A lunchtime drink could end at 11 o’clock at night
My first mentor was someone we used to call an “old soak”. He was rarely sober but a beautiful writer and taught me so much about journalism. He was a national newspaper reporter who I met during my apprenticeship at Caters News Agency. An apprenticeship then meant signing your indentures, binding you to an employer for three years.
I was just 19 and spent most of the three years in pubs. I lost count of the number of lost days when a quick drink at lunchtime ended at 11 o’clock at night. In between you would write your story and try and sound credible (and sober) to a copy-typist, while dictating it in a public telephone box – if you could find one that worked.
And that’s the problem with telling the truth while mentoring the next generation. They often can’t believe what it was like at the time. And I also think they don’t really want to believe.
But mentoring goes back a long way. Back almost 3,000 years to the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus entrusted his young son Telemachus to his friend Mentor when he went off to fight in the Trojan War.
But despite youthful cynicism, mentoring is important. It’s why many personality profiles in newspaper lifestyle sections include “Who was your mentor?”
A certain “something”
I have been in the launch line-up of five global news channels, and at my most recent, CGTN Europe, there was a young producer whose curriculum vitae appeared to be a work of fiction, as many of them do. But I didn’t mind, as she had a certain “something”, so I backed my hunch and hired her. That “something” proved to be a shared love of the Carry On films!
Nevertheless, I mentored her for three years, and she made mistakes. But she also turned out to be hard-working and great fun to work with, and I like to think I taught her a few things along the way. She has now been promoted and has moved on.
Anyone over 50 who has enjoyed a decent and successful career in any walk of life wants to pass on what they have learned.
It feels natural passing on learning. You feel young again recreating the past.
But your mentees could easily just think, “Silly old git – he’s making this up!”
My great friend Chris Franzen, who has just opened the Waldorf hotel in Doha, Qatar, has acted as mentor to dozens of young hotel trainees.
He told me: “Good mentors in the hospitality industry can make all the difference between success and failure, especially in the luxury segment where the expectations are much higher, and guests’ needs need to be anticipated.
“They provide guidance, support and encouragement to help mentees develop the skills, knowledge and confidence needed to excel in their careers and ultimately contribute to the success of the entire industry.”
Learn from others’ mistakes
A confident mentoring relationship can pay off by ensuring that the mentee understands you want to help build their growth rather than make them feel badly about themselves. And, of course, you can save them years of climbing the greasy pole by giving them great contacts.
But when I’m mentoring, I don’t make it up – I tell it as it was. We learn best from mistakes. So learn from mine, the easy way, not from your own, the hard way. When you are young you don’t have a history and you don’t have the same reference points.
But the mentee must be worthy of the mentor.
Mentor didn’t just help Telemachus as a favour to an old friend. Telemachus was the future ruler of Ithaca.
Mind you, I sometimes think I wish I’d had more mentors when I was a young hack – sober ones – to have pointed me in the right direction. But, even better, to stop me from going down a few cul-de-sacs!
Written by Stephen Cole
Stephen is an international television journalist who has been in the launch line-up of five global 24-hour news channels, including Sky News and BBC World London. He has retired twice but finds himself returning to flit around the world chairing, moderating and presenting.
He recently moved from London to Cheltenham, where he plays both tennis and padel tennis, and he swims outdoors as much as he can.
He’s spoken on board cruise ships for the last decade and thinks the Saga generation is intelligent and fun, but can be unforgiving, because they know exactly what they like. And, it seems to Stephen, they’re always looking for an adventure…