Top tips from Frances Dickens, chief executive and co-founder of media barter specialist Astus Group.
I expect my experience of school is similar to that of a lot of business people who have succeeded in their careers despite, rather than because of, formal education. I also expect like me that their teachers played less of a role in shaping their work ethic and values than the handful of key colleagues who noticed their potential, encouraged them to excel and bollocked them if they didn't.
The role of mentors in the workplace is a perennial topic and I am a big fan of formal mentoring schemes such US-based Million Women Mentors and WISE here in the UK which both aim to push female talent in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) sectors from classroom to boardroom.
My own career has been focussed on the media industry, initially as account handler for billboard company More O'Ferrall and currently as chief executive of Astus Group, the UK's largest media barter company, where I oversee a team of 35 and a business turnover of £132.2m in 2013. In terms of my career trajectory, there are two women who helped ensure I confounded my teachers' expectations and whom I'd regard as mentors: Annie Rickard, chief executive of outdoor specialist Posterscope and Christine Walker, former chief executive of Zenith Media and latterly joint MD of Walker Media. I met Annie when she hired me to work at outdoor specialist Harrison Salison which later became Posterscope. Christine and I worked together on the board of out of home specialists Meridian Outdoor, the joint venture between Posterscope and Zenith Optimedia.
Here are five key lessons my mentors taught me:
1. Preparation is key
Going into a meeting with Annie or Christine was a terrifying prospect IF you hadn't prepared, as both are absolute perfectionists. On the board of Meridian Outdoor they were often both present at meetings and I quickly learned to anticipate the questions they were going to ask ahead of time and to ensure any documents I was handing out featured meticulous spelling and grammar. On the plus side, I learnt that if I argued my case really well they were prepared to listen and go with my recommendations.
2. Always deliver on your promises
One of the founding principles of Astus Group is that we only take on deals we are sure we can deliver against. This is a lesson I learned from Annie and Christine for whom delivery on business promises is almost an article of faith. Both women inspired tremendous client loyalty because of their track record of coming through for clients. Following their example has served me well at Astus where our insistence on meeting client expectation means we have repeat business levels of more than 95%.
3. Keep calm and carry on
Christine and Annie have experience of leading multimillion pound companies and both have fairly formidable reputations usually perpetuated by people who haven't actually met them. The bottom line is that you've got to be tough if you're leading a company -people's livelihoods and careers depend on you making cool, calm decisions. Christine and Annie are both very calm under pressure. Come to think of it I've met way more panicky blokes at the top than panicky women.
4. Lead by example
As my boss at Posterscope, Annie taught be everything I know about account handling. One thing I particularly admire about her, and which I have tried to make a part of my own leadership style, is that she would never ask her staff to do anything she hadn't or wouldn't do herself. What's more if the task was in anyway tough, she would be there doing it with you. Both Annie and Christine had a very open door policy and again an open working culture is one of the cornerstones of my own business.
5. Give people you trust a chance
Annie and Christine are great at empowering people who they perceive to have potential by giving them more responsibility. This explains how I came to be on the board of Meridian Outdoor. When I started Astus, Christine gave me a chance to prove that media barter worked despite having a very bad experience of media barter as it was practised at the time. I really admire her for being prepared to put her misgivings to one side and listen to how my company was going to change the existing discredited business model by focussing on delivery first. When the time was right she allowed me to talk to her clients about media barter and when they agreed to try it out we made sure we exceeded their expectations.