Growing our own timber is hard, but we must do it

pinpoint one human resources CEO and director Lucia Mabasa. Picture: Supplied

pinpoint one human resources CEO and director Lucia Mabasa. Picture: Supplied

Published Jun 7, 2024


By Lucia Mabasa

The injunction to lift as we rise is as relevant today as we celebrate South Africa’s 30th anniversary as a fully democratic and free country, as it was in 1994. Part of running a successful operation as a business leader is growing your own timber; identifying those who you hope one day might replace you as you develop your own talent pipeline so that they ultimately do.

It is a concept that resonates with me because I benefited from being mentored and given opportunities in my own career. Ultimately, I became the chief executive officer and owner of the company I joined as a young graduate. I have been thinking about this a lot recently, because May 1 marked our company’s 25th anniversary and it is only natural that you start thinking about charting the next 25 years.

What better way is there to do that than with people you have developed, literally from entry level to management and then C-suite? Like most things it is easier said than done. Mentorship, like any relationship, is a two-way street; the mentor and the mentee must be committed to the process. Both must possess a rare blend of empathy and a rhinoceros-like hide for criticism, because it can get rough.

The ladder to the top is scary, it is often perilous and many of the rungs can splinter and maybe even break on the way up. The trick is to keep going despite the pain and – in extreme cases where you fall off the ladder– pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start climbing all over again.

There’s no substitute for perseverance, especially when things don’t turn out the way you wanted, but there is often a huge gulf between what the mentee dreams of achieving and the reality that is out there. The mentor must be able to help them bridge the chasm between expectation and actuality and part of that involves never shying away from telling the truth, not sugar-coating it.

Throughout all of it, there must be trust. If it’s broken and it can’t be fixed, then not only is the mentorship broken but the relationship with the company too and – depending on who is at fault – someone ends up resigning.

If trust is vital, then respect is the foundation upon which it is built. Mentorships cannot succeed where either mentor or the mentee is contemptuous of the other’s credentials and their right to be teaching them – or learning from them. In either case, the outcome is almost always catastrophic.

It does seem, from what I’ve been told, that there is a generational difference that creates fertile ground for disrespect that many mentors of my age and experience are struggling to overcome with their mentees. I hear complaints about people not making the time to be mentored, to do the work they are asked to do, which is normally the hard and boring stuff, but which is vital.

I’ve heard too many stories of younger colleagues just wanting to get a seat at the table but not coming to the meetings prepared – or becoming totally despondent when things don’t go their way. On the first count, not preparing before going to the meeting is unforgivable. It’s disrespectful to all the other people at the meeting and it wastes their time, especially if the person who hasn’t prepared starts weighing in on debates with their opinions that add nothing to the debate. On the second aspect, disappointment is part and parcel of life. Not for nothing is it said that the journey is often more important – and certainly more fulfilling – than the actual destination. Disappointments teach us more than we know.

The current generation, I hear, feels that they deserve opportunities to grow, just for showing up. Life doesn’t work like that either, just like a boxer must fight their way up through the rankings to get a shot at the title, so too must the keen young exec do the hard yards and burn the midnight oil. Studying is vital, not just the formal qualifications, but having an enquiring mind and reading as widely as possible about your chosen area of expertise.

But as much as some of the mentors are disillusioned about their mentees, the knife cuts both ways; I’ve heard enough reports to know that it isn’t all one way. Just as mentees have responsibilities to us as their mentors, so too do we have responsibilities to them. The mentorship process should be a blend of formal and informal learning. We must ensure that our mentees’ theoretical knowledge is growing at the same pace as the practical life hacks that we are teaching them too.

Open channels of communication are vital to build the trust that a great mentoring relationship is built on. It’s important to be able to be vulnerable in front of your mentee to show them that what they are experiencing is not unique to them, but that we all went through it. We survived and we thrived.

And sometimes, it feels like it’s all for nothing, you get a great mentee, you put your heart and soul into it and then they get poached by another company and leave you. But the effort is never wasted, you’ve done your bit, you’ve lifted as you rose, you’ve paid it forward for the person who was you mentor all those years back. And just like we expect our mentees to do, you get back on the horse and your start mentoring all over again.

It’s the circle of life. Don’t get despondent, keep on giving, because your own rewards for doing this will be greater than you can imagine.

· Lucia Mabasa is Chief Executive Officer of pinpoint one human resources, a proudly South African black women owned executive search firm. pinpoint one human resources provides executive search solutions in the demand for C suite, specialist and critical skills across industries and functional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa. Visit to find out more or read her previous columns on leadership; avoiding the pitfalls of the boardroom and becoming the best C-suite executive you can be.