The mind of a mentor: Insights from SA’s leading innovators

The Mentorship Challenge connects people across multiple boundaries. And this is all thanks to the time, talent and wisdom of the mentors featured on the show and online. We wanted to unpack their insights more fully because, ultimately, it’s all about the meetings, milestones – and mistakes! – that led them to be the leaders they are today.

If leadership implies a caretaking role, a custodial responsibility, then Dr Mark Vella embodies precisely that. He is both leader and healer, with a background spanning richly divergent disciplines, including post-grad degrees in everything from naturopathy and western medicine, to management practice (from UCT’s Graduate School of Business.) He’s a speaker, strategist, and mentor, and is the founder of Sapientt Human Capital, which merges lifestyle medicine, emotional intelligence and entrepreneurial strategies to optimise the wellness and sustainability of organisations.

He identifies as a conscious capitalist, a social entrepreneur and a servant leader – people are his ‘why’. We sat him down and asked him to answer a few choice questions.

What is your understanding of the term ‘mentorship’?

The broad, dry definition is that professional, formal mentoring is an arranged developmental relationship in which a skilled, experienced and trusted advisor shares special knowledge, advice and experience with a mentee. The relationship offers a safe space and supportive relationship to address business, career and personal challenges, so that mentees can process and progress, overcome obstacles, achieve goals, and improve performance.

What, in your view, is required to forge a successful mentoring relationship?

From the start, it should be agreed on what success looks like for both mentor and mentee. There should be some degree of formality, which could include baselining, contracting around times, terms, process, and expectations.

The success of a mentoring relationship will be influenced by the compatibility and suitability of matching. It’s a bit like dating! And like dating relationships, they will likely have a period in which the match may be valuable and relevant. And like marriage, some may (or may not) go the distance, and grow beyond mentoring. For example, the mentor may become an independent director within the organisation, or may fill an active role in facilitating funding, partnerships, and other transactional elements.

Tell us about the earliest memories of mentorship in your life – with specific reference to the people who had the greatest influence on your development.

Honestly, there are countless teachers, mentors and defining moments that shaped me. I grew up in Cape Town, the son of eclectic, immigrant parents of Maltese/Italian descent, surrounded by books and six home languages. It sowed the seed for a life of curiosity and a love of learning, so that today I constantly seek out knowledge and new ways of seeing. My family were refugees, and my father was a humble man raised by Jesuit priests. His quietness belied his wisdom. From him I learned empathy, and this informed my desire to mentor.

Looking back on your life, what changes would you make and what would you do differently? What would you say to your younger self?

Ah, this assumes I know what I know now, in a world vastly different to the one I grew up in. So, first, I would have learnt far earlier about saving and investment, and applied that knowledge. I would have started my own business sooner. That said, I would have probably completed a business, medical or law degree. They give such a good basis for clarity of thought, reasoning and business acumen. I would have travelled more and been more open to other cultures. I’d definitely have spent more time having fun.

If you could pick anyone in the world to mentor you today, who would that ‘fantasy’ mentor be?

Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela easily come to mind.

What legacy would you like to leave in your lifetime?

That we, as Sapientt, played a role at the highest level in supporting change and transformation for better African leadership. We would literally like to mentor government and help shift the model of how leadership plays out.

What does it take to develop an entrepreneurial, innovative mindset?

At its core, I think, as Toffler said, it takes being able to ‘learn, unlearn and relearn’ – this, coupled with curiosity, an appetite for complexity, ambiguity and imperfection, and a desire to find a better way of doing things.

What changes would you like to see in our education system (pre-primary through to post-matric) to make it more supportive of disruptive, entrepreneurial thinking?

It’s time for a new model, not just a constantly tweaked one on an outdated framework. Our education system is still fundamentally a legacy system, and it’s utterly unequal. It runs on industrial-age values of process and standardisation. It prepares students for a world that no longer exists.

As a result, education is being disrupted online – for example, by online educators like Suits and Sneakers, YouTube, the Khan Academy, and so on. More parents are choosing to homeschool their children. And new models and movements, such as Ad Astra, are gaining momentum. How many years before we pay attention?

So, what has to change? Firstly, politicians should not be involved. So, instead, using the principle of human-centred design, let youth play a greater role in saying what they need and want. Involve them in building it. Find ways to translate and pivot that into our education systems. Create more blended, case-based and problem-solving learning processes and opportunities in the curriculum.

Secondly, we need to value educators. They are poorly paid, poorly valued and not empowered. They need to be nurtured and rewarded. Then, go back to basics with ECD (Early Childhood Development). It all begins here, and fundamentally lays down the blueprint for higher learning.

Most children in this country have experienced some level of trauma, and I think our education system stresses them further. Use meditation, yoga, and other reflective options not only to impart management skills, but also to heal from trauma. This is very overlooked.

Money is a limiting factor for many people to access a decent education. We have to change this – and not just at university level. There are so many ways to create more value at a lower cost.

Keep high standards, but get rid of exams. Get rid of overwhelming loads of homework for the sake of homework. Direct energy and resources differently. Lecture less and let the students work more to find answers. Support children so they learn to better self-manage and sustain relationships.

What role can corporates, SMEs and NGOs play in rebuilding South Africa, and how can they make a meaningful impact in the communities that need this most?

They do play this role, but they can only do this to the extent that they are valued and enabled, and that what they offer is relevant. Social impact – yes! Charity and handouts – no.

But, honestly, the most limiting factor is government, who are out of touch with what SMEs really need. They focus on the wrong KPIs. It’s all about transactional and not necessarily transformational value creation. Don’t get me wrong: there are countless people doing amazing work, and with much value to offer, but it’s clear the system isn’t working.

Behavioural change leads to organisational and industry change. It shifts values and leadership. If we don’t get that fundamentally right, things won’t fundamentally change.

What advice would you give a passionate young person who wants to start their own business in today’s economic climate?

Do it. Learn, build, test. Keep an open mind. And know it’s okay if you don’t succeed or if you work for someone else. There are many ways to create value and feel fulfilled in this world. 

We’re hoping these mentoring dialogues will deliver some meaningful food for thought for you to digest, and that they’ll inspire both mentors and mentees to join the challenge.

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