Spotlight Mentoring Interview: Simon Brown

In this, the first of a spotlight interview series, with mentors and mentees, we speak to our very own advisory board member, Simon Brown.

Mentor: Simon Brown« Back to Articles

1. Simon, would you be able to introduce yourself to our readers?

I am Simon Brown, (Simon Brown HR on YouTube) and I’m passionate about change management and developing people and organisations to become the best they can be. I am a Talent Coach and a Mentor and have spent most of my career working as an HR Professional for organisations both large scale top FTSE 100 such as GlaxoSmithKline with over 100,000 employees worldwide, plus Fortune 250 USA giants such as The Coca-Cola Company and NCR Corporation and a range of smaller organisations of 10 to 800 employees.

For the past 11 years, I have owned and run my own consulting business to help people and organisations manage their challenges and find ways to improve and grow. My other life roles are husband, brother, father, uncle, and social volunteer. I am a published poet and writer and enjoy art, music and sport and exploring the great outdoors – with adventures in Iceland - volcanoes, waterfalls and hot springs, Canadian Rockies, and the Arctic Circle of Finland amongst those of recent years.

2. Can you explain more about your work and career journey? What made you want to get started in your career?

After A levels I had an unplanned gap year due to contracting hepatitis and missing out on the chance to go to the university of my choice. Instead, I worked as an operative in factories and warehouses as a laboratory cleaner, and as a labourer loading and unloading lorries - working at the Docks. I also had stints as a kitchen porter and as a courier for IBM. This got me out into the world of work and helped me to appreciate the perspectives of people from different backgrounds and roles within a given organisation.

In the following year I got accepted by Portsmouth Polytechnic, now the University of Portsmouth, to study Social Sciences: Psychology, Philosophy and Sociology together with Social and Economic History and Literature and Film – collectively known as Cultural Studies. This was a new degree course at that time, and I enjoyed the pioneering spirit and freedom of thinking and expressing views in seminars. I was on the board of studies representing the students and I published a student’s magazine called Grassroots. I graduated 3 years later with a BA Honours 2:1 degree and was looking to get into journalism or publishing because of my love of the written word and books.

But that didn’t work out, so I broadened my thinking into the area of Training and Development and got my first professional role as a Group Training Officer for a London HQ company that manufactured dental products such as drills, scrapers, mirrors, and crowns and false teeth. I progressed along the HR career path moving to become a Recruitment and Training Officer for the Co-operative Society then a Personnel Manager for Unigate -now Dairy Crest. I spent a lot of time on milk rounds in all weathers, early hours of the day. For the following years moved on to Duracell as a European HR Manager, GSK as a Head of HR within their Consumer Healthcare and Corporate divisions where I worked for 10 years and learnt a great deal about best practices for recruiting, onboarding, and developing people, including setting up and running a successful mentoring programme for 2 years which won internal and external awards.

After that, I enjoyed 5 years as European HR Director for Premier Farnell in their Automotive Aftercare division – with business trips all over Europe and a large HR team to lead and grow. Then I was HR Shared Services Director Europe for The Coca-Cola Company -where I learned a lot about marketing, branding and passion for people initiatives. I enjoyed working in Asia and America as well as Europe at Coke and I had free Coke Zero each day.

My mother died in 2010 and it had a big impact on me. One of the changes of direction was to leave the corporate world and instead set up my own consulting business specialising in Change Management, Talent Acquisition and Talent Management, HR Shared Services, Coaching and Mentoring. In 2010, when I left Coca-Cola to set up my own business, I attracted clients through the Coca-Cola case study I shared at conferences to build my reputation via their strong brand. Ever since, I have been working with clients across many sectors and building a good network of warm contacts to keep me at work. All my work has been found via my network of contacts on LinkedIn (80%) and in response to headhunters (20%). This is why I emphasize the power of networking when mentoring others - it really does work!

3. Can you share your favourite part of your job role and what keeps you motivated to keep going?

What I enjoy most is helping people think, act and grow through one-to-one conversations – both as a change consultant, career mentor and skills performance coach. I also have enjoyed leading and growing teams and facilitating senior executives in their leadership meetings. I get a buzz from seeing people grow and sharing knowledge and ideas which they can implement. It's fantastic when you see that someone you helped has got promoted to a new role or a bigger position. At Coca-Cola, all my team stayed and grew with me for three years and 80% of them got a promotion within the organisation.

4. Can you tell our readers about some positive and negative experiences you’ve faced during your career journey?

The positives are recruiting, building, and leading successful teams, enabling fast and positive change, improving systems and processes which help managers and employees to have more positive work experiences. It’s a good feeling to see people grow and be fulfilled in their work.

The negatives include having to make people redundant or being made redundant myself – which has happened a few times too. But helping people through that experience and the change curve is something good that comes out of that. For example, we closed a factory of 300 people at Duracell Batteries when the work moved from the UK to Belgium, but I set up a Job Shop and 96% of those employees found new jobs within 3 months. I’ve also had a handful of negative bosses in my time whose management style was command and control and bullying. These negative role models however have inspired me never to treat people like they treated me -so some useful learning from those experiences.

5. Why did you decide to become a board member for PushFar and what does mentoring mean to you?

I was approached on LinkedIn by Ed Johnson in February 2019. He messaged me to say he was developing a platform for students and professionals and would love the opportunity to find out more about my experiences. We exchanged messages during March and eventually had a call in April and in a follow up had a video call in April where Ed demonstrated the PushFar platform to me. I was very impressed and then began to provide contacts from my network that may be interested in the mentoring platform.

Ed and I met face to face at the CIPD Festival of Work Exhibition in London soon after and I got us the first face to face demo with Enterprise-Rent-A-Car in Egham on August 13. I was keen to help and became an Ambassador of PushFar and an Advisory Board Member. It’s a very good feeling to be part of something which you know has a great social value and is an intuitive and user-friendly cloud-based technology platform. I was familiar with Workday and Oracle having implemented these cloud-based systems for companies and impressed that Ed had developed something in the same league as these, as a young cloud EdTech entrepreneur.

6. Can you share some mentoring experiences you’ve had in your life?

I’ve had role models in my childhood and student days that, looking back, I would describe as mentors because they were passionate about sharing their knowledge and would give extra time to do this. My English teacher, Football coach, Art teacher, Geology teacher, History teacher, all openly shared their knowledge and inspired me to set goals and achieve them.

Later, I was lucky enough to be trained as a mentor by the CIPD at Kingston University, and Professor David Clutterbuck was our Mentoring tutor. He made the role of mentoring clearer for me with his practical and humorous tips for matching, goal setting and measuring learning. I then mentored HR professionals who had recently graduated with the CIPD qualification and I invited David to help me launch my mentoring programme with over 100 Finance professionals at GSK. We ran several mentoring training sessions together and designed measures of success which he published in his best-seller “Everyone Needs a Mentor”. So, he was a real role model mentor to me for several years.

When I was made redundant from one company I benefited from career transitioning coaching -outplacement support - and although this was a mix of coaching skills about how to write a good CV and how to practice interviews, it went beyond that with a couple of the people who inspired me by staying in touch with me over several career moves. One named Brian was a coach for me and then a mentor. Brian was 70 when we started on CV writing and 80 by the time I had started my own business and was having some success.

Since becoming an Advisory Board member and an ambassador – someone who introduces PushFar to organisations with potential mentoring needs, I’ve also made sure I road test the platform myself and experience mentoring each month and I have enjoyed being a volunteer mentor to 4 people from diverse backgrounds and countries and in a range of professions. I find the meetings motivating as I always learn from my mentee as they share their organisational challenges and their roles and as I share my knowledge with them as here it helps me to articulate again exactly what I have learnt for myself over the years. Most of these mentoring relationships have lasted for between 6 months and a year or more.

7. Would you recommend a mentoring relationship to people?

Yes. Very much so. A formal mentoring relationship provides a good structure for setting goals and exchanging knowledge, insights and ideas, network contacts and keeping focus and enthusiasm for the world of work within a trusting and confidential environment. It is a surprise to me that more people don’t take up mentoring as it is a very flexible and low-cost way to learn and grow. Sometimes it feels like mentoring is Learning and Developments best-kept secret and now it is the norm to have virtual video meetings, you don’t have to take time to commute to some coffee bar to have your mentoring meeting – so your mentoring pool becomes much wider.

8. What is your best advice for someone looking to become a mentor or mentee?

Firstly, do have the courage and the will to do it. It's easier than you think but requires time to be set aside to do it well. A commitment of an hour a month to keep momentum and make progress. Be open to setting and sharing your goals as a mentee. Otherwise, without goals, the meetings are just a friendly chat without direction. It’s your career and your development so take the lead in finding a mentor who can offer what you are looking for and set up the regular meetings.

As a mentor I want the mentee to show their commitment to learning by doing the above – it’s a kind of learning contract and I then put my energy into sharing my knowledge and offering my network of warm contacts to them. As a mentor don’t undersell yourself – be confident as you have knowledge and wisdom and insights and experience to share that can be helpful for a mentee to accelerate their development and in some cases give them a choice of routes to follow and watch-out traps to avoid.

Both Mentees and Mentors:
It's ok to finish a mentoring relationship if it no longer gives you what you need for your career development. Be open and honest about when to end it, it’s a conscious uncoupling and a no-blame divorce – don’t drag it on for months if it is not working for you and you are only taking up each other’s time which could be used productively elsewhere.

9. What are your 10-year goals?

I love life, so firstly I would still like to be alive and well in 10 years with a healthy and happy family too. I’m saying that as a 65-year-old who would love to grow old but not so fast. My professional career is coming to an end soon, but I am keen to rewire instead of completely retire and to continue working and volunteering for as long as people value my sharing of knowledge and experience. Fully living each day at a time is important too and for career paths I recommend focusing on growing transferable skills rather than thinking about specific job titles too much. Lateral growth can be as enriching as vertical progression as I have learnt from consulting to the corporate community. Being open to learning and nimble to adapt to change are good goals too.

As an ambassador of PushFar, I have set myself a business development goal with Ed to find at least one organisation per month that is open to having a PushFar demonstration and considering setting up a mentoring programme with all the PushFar resources. So last year I gained 9 demo sessions for PushFar, so let’s see if I can gain 12 in 2022.

10. Can you share your best piece of advice to our readers in a similar job role as yourself?

If you work in HR, how can you help people and organisations to grow, to promote good values with integrity, equity, inclusiveness, and diversity? Don’t think compliance, nursing or policing but do encourage all leaders to be open to feedback and to both recognise good performance and not let underperformance go unnoticed. Strong HR Business Partners will be change agents too and be good coaches of People Managers who have the primary engagement role within the organisation and should not leave the people's stuff to HR to do it for them. Finally, if you work in HR or Learning and Development do let your leaders and decision-makers know about Mentoring and PushFar – as one of the most flexible and effective methods for engagement, retention, and career path development, and for actively promoting diversity and inclusion as you match mentoring pairs. Let’s not keep mentoring as our best-kept secret! If you want to start your own consulting business – first get some experience across several organisations which you can share as practical case studies for others to learn from.
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