Diane Smith-Gander FAICD and Samantha Tough FAICD baulk when it’s suggested that they have a mentoring relationship. The two were paired up last year by the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ (AICD’s) Chair’s Mentoring Program but say their relationship is more than that of a simple mentor and mentee. Instead, they consider themselves peers and have a relationship built around mutual support.

“Although we met through the mentoring program, I see Diane as a colleague and I think she would say the same about me. What I have found, from my perspective, is that it was fabulous to meet someone with whom I could share stories and someone who is experienced,’’ Tough says.

“What I enjoy very much is that Diane, once she becomes your supporter, is very authentic. It’s genuine. If I call her because I need to talk, she will get back to me as soon as she can.”

Tough adds that their relationship is still in its infancy, but says that is part of the learning process. “It’s a growing relationship, we are getting to know each other. I am enjoying the fact that I can ring her and say ‘I have this circumstance what would you do?’”

Smith-Gander concurs.“I am very happy to characterise it like that,’’ she says. “Samantha had a really strong portfolio of boards already, she had a great deal of experience as a non-executive director and I think that is how we were able to develop more of a supportive relationship.”

Different worlds

While their working relationship continues to evolve, it is fair to say the two come from very different worlds. A former banking executive, Smith-Gander was head of business technology solutions and services division at Westpac and was a partner at McKinsey & Company. She is also chair of Transfield Services and serves on the board of Wesfarmers. She has also been deputy chair of the NBN and was also a director at grain handler CBH Group.

Originally trained in law, Tough did commercial law for a short time and spent eight years practising criminal law as a defence counsel. She then spent a couple of years as an operational lawyer with the police force in Western Australia before she was picked up by the venture capital sector. She spent five years as a senior executive with Woodside Energy, including four years as general manager of the North West Shelf project.

When it comes to company boards, Tough has gravitated to the small to mid-caps, a very different position to Smith-Gander. She has served as executive director for operations at Polaris Metals and has been on the boards of Black Oak Minerals and Murchison Metals.

She is a non-executive director at CBH Group, holding company Cape, Molopo Energy, Saracen Mineral Holdings and Strike Resources.

Mutual benefits

Although Smith-Gander was selected as the mentor in her relationship with Tough, she admits that she has also gotten a lot out of the relationship, “As a mentor, I was actually able to get some insights into the types of boards and sectors that Sam has been in, which is very different for me. It helped me understand that,’’ she says.

“And I was able, through her, to experience some situations that I otherwise would not have had. Sam has gone through some circumstances that small companies go through when they have to do capital raising, and that is done in a very different way from Wesfarmers or Transfield. Sam gave me some perspective on it. It gave me a better understanding.”

According to Tough, the different perspectives have created a special working relationship.

“Diane is in the S&P/ASX top 10 and I am not.”

“I have been in a number of companies that have run out of cash and you find yourself asking questions about solvency and liquidity. They are different experiences to what Diane would be experiencing in the ASX top 10,’’ she says.

“It’s been very interesting to exchange stories and seek advice because I am in a different paradigm.”

Driving forces

Significantly, both Smith-Gander and Tough avoided contact when they were first paired up last year as Tough had been brought in to replace Smith-Gander on the CBH board. So they circled each other for a while before finally meeting up, and they haven’t looked back. The relationship continues to this day.

Smith-Gander, who has had a great deal of experience as a mentor and who has had a private coaching practice, says these relationships are really created by the mentee.v

“I am a great believer that a mentoring relationship should develop naturally and should mainly be driven by the mentee. When you have a mentoring situation given to you as with the AICD program, the mentee knows what they need. The mentor doesn’t know what the mentee needs, so they really have to give you that sphere about what is going to be useful for them.

“It needs to be pulled from the mentee, not pushed from the mentor. A mentor is not someone who is going to get you a job or a new board. It’s someone who should be a sounding board for you, extending your situational reach.

“There are things I’ve done that Sam has not done and so being able to help and counsel around those things and talk about how I got those board positions and the process I went through, is helpful.”

She adds that everyone is different so the mentoring has to accommodate that. The kind of conversations they have has helped give their relationship its distinctive shape.

“You would have thought we would have talked about techniques, about getting on boards and so on ... but what we did was we started to talk about our situations, what the context was so that we could start to understand the background,’’ Smith-Gander says.

“Sam was having some interesting times on her boards that were difficult to manage, things like leadership transition and interpersonal stuff. It was from sharing those experiences that we built a peer-based relationship in our mentoring.

“Sometimes you can be mentored by someone who is a peer, it doesn’t have to be someone who is older, wiser, bigger or bolder.”

Tough says having a mentor can be critical for directors because it can be such an insular job.

“There is a difference between being a director at a board table and being an executive,’’ she says.

“When you are an executive and you go back and sit at your desk, you could probably have a vent. As a director, it is not appropriate to vent. You rise above that.

“It is very easy to be quite insular as a director because it is you personally at the table and then you leave. There is competition now for boards.

“Working with Diane and having a genuine relationship that I think will continue to build, means I have someone who I can go to. It makes you feel less insular and reminds you to do the same for others.”