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Mentorship at the heart of leadership

25 March 2021

Tim Collins (mentor) and Oli Le Lievre (mentee) were matched as a part of the 2020 National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) Broader Networks Mentoring Program, delivered by the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation (ARLF).

Making the match

Oli Le Lievre is building a career based on his passion for Australian agriculture and the people in it. He has worked for global consultancies; founded a social movement connecting the broader public with primary producers and is taking on a brand new challenge as content marketing manager with online livestock auctions market leader, Auctions Plus. In life and his career, he follows the heart and jumps right in.

Tim Collins is an established agribusiness executive and government projects expert. He’s a graduate of Royal Military College, Duntroon; a former logistics manager for grain export giant, CBH Group, and currently the project director of Westport, WA. He is an ARLF Fellow and a master of strategy, logistics, planning and process.

“To be honest,” Oli reflects, “if I were to choose a mentor, I wouldn’t necessarily have picked Tim.”

Tim was similarly surprised by the common ground and mutual connections he and Oli quickly established they had.

“It may not always be obvious, but I think the Foundation did very well connecting the dots between the people on this program.” He says.

The pair has forged a strong relationship through the 2020 NFF Broader Networks Mentoring Program – an idea born from the 2019 cohort of the NFF 2030 Leaders Program, also delivered by the ARLF.

“We built up a rapport pretty quickly,” says Tim. “Oli was a very easy person to engage with.”

Drawing on specific mentorship training provided by the ARLF, and his own long experience as leader and mentor in a range of settings, Tim helped frame how he and Oli would work together.

The ‘bigger piece’

“Tim from the outset was clear that it was about trust and honesty, and a level of responsibility from both of us. That’s what made it so successful,” Oli says.

“I wanted to understand more about leadership in the workplace, particularly around balancing your personal values with professional leadership.”

With Tim as a sounding board, Oli consolidated his priorities.

“What’s brought me through my career is that bigger piece … the ag industry needs to be front-and-centre in the coming years, driving solutions to some of our biggest global challenges,” he says.

“One of the aims Tim helped me clarify was that of being an ‘everyday’ leader, working with your team and providing them with opportunities, and developing their capabilities.”

Tim, based in Perth, and Oli in Melbourne, met online each fortnight to keep issues fresh in their minds, but allow enough space for Oli to make progress on certain goals and actions.

“My mission was to help Oli accelerate the achievement of his goals. That shaped everything we did.” Tim says.

“We reflected on the fact that Oli had so much on his plate, but rather than saying ‘mate, you’ve got ten balls in the air, how are you going to handle it all?’ I encouraged him to have a clear goal about everything: ‘What’s driving this? Where do you want it to take you?’”

Tim, a graduate of Course 11 of the ARLF’s Australian Rural Leadership Program, approached his role with a generosity of spirit, and a genuine belief in the value of the exchange between mentor and mentee.

“I felt I had as much to gain – maybe more – than Oli,” he says.

“I have learned practical things from Oli, but on a more esoteric level, I’ve been learning from his stories.” Tim says.  

Support in a pandemic

As COVID-19 upended normal life for many around Australia, those in Melbourne arguably had one of the toughest experiences of 2020.

“There was a level of personal relationship with Tim that was great to have last year,” Oli says.

In his own workplace, the disruptions of COVID-19 manifested noticeably.

“I noticed there was a level of responsibility for others that wasn’t being administered by our leadership team. I was on the sidelines, but I knew I had to say something … that was a really hard conversation to have.”

Drawing on Tim’s experience with a similar situation, Oli approached it with honesty, and with some ready solutions, and the conversation went well.

In his personal life, lockdown wasn’t all negative for Oli.

“COVID actually gave me a lot of time to work on my ideas about building stronger connections between agriculture and the broader community.” – A connection Oli is growing through his Humans of Agriculture project.

“It is difficult when you’re forced into confinement – you tend to occupy yourself through work and keeping busy.”

Connecting with Tim was a steadying touch-point as Oli struggled with life balance.

“I started to notice there were things I was working on that I should have been really excited about, but work became a chore. There was no solution or way out of it, stuck in that circle of lockdown. Having Tim as a sounding-board was invaluable. I wouldn’t otherwise speak up about being over-committed, because I felt it was self-inflicted … you do need to take stock.”

Turbo-charging leadership development

From Kade Denton’s perspective as the NFF Senior Project Officer monitoring the mentoring initiative, Tim and Oli’s experience is indicative of the clear need in rural industries for knowledge exchange.

“The mentoring relationship is unique. It’s a way to deepen a person’s abilities, and it broadens the way people use their skills and respond to different challenges,” he says.

“The ag sector really values networks and relationships within communities. Peer-to-peer relationships can be leveraged to have a large impact in the sector.”

He also notes that someone who’s been mentored is much more likely to develop mentoring relationships in the future.

Tim Collins agrees.

“Mentoring begets mentoring. The NFF and the ARLF have done a great job in sowing the seeds through a program like this, and the ARLF understand first-hand the huge value in a strong network,” he says.

“The way forward is for organisations, industries and sectors to lead the way on making mentorship something that is ingrained. Oli will inevitably mentor others. When he goes on to lead in an organisation, he’ll incorporate this in a formal way, because he understands the inherent value.”

From the vantage point of mentee, Oli sees mentorship as the answer to a real “missed opportunity” in his sector.

“We have young people with the energy and enthusiasm to solve problems, but you need the experience to help reach middle ground. There’s not enough collaboration between generations.” Oli says.

The NFF has “high hopes” for the future the program, and its continued positive impact.

“We see it as an opportunity to turbo-charge the development of young people in the sector,” Kade Denton says.

“It’s a chance to get them into existing networks to have input into advocacy and policy development. This is usually a much slower progression.” He says.

For young people presented with the opportunity to be mentored, Oli says it can be life-changing.

“The power of mentoring is the ability to talk with someone about your experiences – not just at a key moment when you need advice – but in all conditions. Through this, your self-awareness grows. You develop new behaviours and those stay with you.”

From Tim’s perspective: “It’s a small investment with a big pay-off … The beauty of mentoring is you get out of it as much as you put in.”

Over the coming 18 months the ARLF is proud to be delivering, in partnership with the NFF and supported by the Future Drought Fund Drought Resilience Leaders Program, a new mentoring program to support the agricultural sector. This program will build on the success of the Broader Networks Mentoring Program and harness the collective power of networks across the country committed to rural, regional and remote Australia.