Finding the tree at the end of the field

Renowned business mentor John Bittleston has had a 60-year career in business. In the first of two interviews with Momentum, he recalls how he found his first mentor at the age of 13 when a ploughman taught him how to create a straight furrow across a field by fixing his eyes on a tree at the other end. He discusses his own approach to mentoring and the importance of helping people to find their own ‘tree’.

What is mentoring and how does it help?

We’re all mentors at some time or another. Civilised society is about helping each other, passing on our experiences to the young and teaching others how we have tried to create smooth and happy lives. Mentoring comes naturally to some people. Early on I noticed these were often people from humble backgrounds. Three of my earliest mentors were a ploughman, a carpenter and a factory worker.

The ploughman taught me the importance of purpose and focusing on it. In one study I later heard of, 94% of 3,000 people interviewed said they had no purpose in life. How remarkable that a ploughman should be someone who had. How fortunate I was to know him.

The carpenter taught me the importance of looking after not just other people but all the things on which I depend. His caring was first and most applied to his pupils. He also gave loving care to his carpentry tools. The importance he attached to their being clean, oiled and ready for work when he needed them is a lesson I never forget.

The factory worker taught me that the cheapest is usually the most expensive. Buying my early tools of office – pens, typewriter – I was tempted, because poor, to go for the cheapest. He showed me the folly of short-termism. I have since always planned for after my death in the hope that others will benefit.

Three fundamental lessons that changed the course of my life; the last 80 years has allowed me to absorb and develop them all.

How did you get involved in mentoring?

Casual mentoring is great. I have been the beneficiary of it and for that I am very grateful. When I was asked to mentor budding writers in Singapore a quarter of a century ago I thought I knew as much as any casual mentor. Working with these brilliant young minds I realised how little that was. It quickly became clear to me that there was more to mentoring than dishing out experience, helpful as that can be. I became convinced that mentoring is an extension of education, the process of ‘drawing out’ not of ‘putting in’. Giving people solutions is the lazy way; helping them ask themselves the right questions, making them think, is the tougher, and for them the much more rewarding, way.

Where do you start the process?

If you have no purpose you do not know where you want to go. Vague concepts of happiness and wealth are not purposes, they are the results of what you do. There is only one way to establish a credible purpose – find out about yourself first. Over the last twenty-five years I developed a questionnaire called the PASDAQ™ Review – it stands for Personality, Abilities, Skills, Dreams, Ambitions, Qualifications. It consists of roughly 100 open-ended questions – there are no checklists, few forced-choice tick-boxes. You have to think thorough the answers very carefully. Our experience is that everyone does.

There are several versions of it, one pre-career, one for the mid-career group – the most frequently used – one for pre-retirement and a special one, harder than all the others, called a Leadership PASDAQ™  Review. It helps you find your Tree on the other side of the field – your purpose in life.

Looking inward is only the start. Just as a builder must know what materials he has available before he begins his job so we must know our assets and their potential as thoroughly as possible before we begin. Once we have looked inwards we start to look out, to see what careers and jobs we could best do, what strengths we have that could be developed and what weaknesses need correcting.

Not everyone finds their Tree immediately. People always learn more than they previously knew about themselves and they will certainly discover which jobs they do not want to do. Sometimes they need help in planting  a Tree. A good mentor guides them to achieve that.

What is the most common weakness?

The most common weakness disclosed is lack of confidence. This can show in many ways – sometimes as over-confldence, even arrogance. It causes the worst mis-management. Ever increasing pressures to make profits and achieve more quickly are the root of the problem.

Confidence is restored by role-plays, tailored to put people in realistic settings they identify with their own experiences. These allow them them room to be adventurous and creative, to take risks and make mistakes. A child learns more from falling over than from a lecture on balance. We all learn better from our mistakes than from theories.

Confidence allows us to ‘read’ the other person without our own personality getting in the way. ‘Reading’ or understanding another’s position and point of view is the management tool most needed today. We are bombarded with checklists of questions to ask at interview, at appraisal, at onboarding, at letting go and about our relationships with colleagues and subordinates. They have become a ritual not an engagement. We should start with a blank piece of paper, and take the path that leads most successfully to discovering the person we are talking to. Predeterming it is a mistake. Engagement is like a good game of tennis, you watch how the other player moves. And react accordingly.

Mentoring deals with companies as well as individuals. Of course, in the end companies are simply collections of individuals but the approach to a business, say an SME, is slightly different. I’ll deal with that in my next article when I will also discuss what matters to young managers starting out on their careers, what I learnt – and am still learning – from sixty years in business and how to handle success.

It’s a great problem to have!

John Bittleston is Founder Mentor and Chairman of Terrific Mentors, based in Singapore. Look out for the second part of the interview in next month’s Momentum Update.

Last updated:
27 February 2019