Russell Lyseight is the General Manager at VITALITE, a Zambian registered company founded in 2013. VITALITE was created to increase rural electrification and combat the poverty tax affecting low-income, energy-poor households across Zambia. Over the next few months, Russell will mentor last mile distribution companies from the GDC network.
Can you tell us a little bit more about VITALITE?
VITALITE identifies different unmet customer needs and looks at how to create access for those. We started on cookstoves and moved into solar home systems. We're now broadening that to see how many different ways you can leverage the distribution network that we have. There are other things that we can do beyond serving people at the base of a pyramid - not a phrase that I particularly like – if there are let's say ecological advantages. If we are able to provide rooftop solar to people who have more money, but again may not want to pay for all of it upfront, then it's still got an advantage in terms of the ecology. This also would help us to de-risk our business by having more diverse revenue streams. Currently, we have 106 staff and 500 agents. We have 29 outlets, which should expand to 30 in about three weeks’ time. That gives you a feel for the scale of the organization.
What has motivated you to become a mentor?
If I think back through the career that I've had, there have been various points when someone showed an interest in me personally, and that's a risk on their part, it's time that they take. They don't have to do that; they were motivated to do it. Essentially their free consultancy has enabled me to improve my performance in a way that I couldn't have done on my own. It's like an accelerant or a catalyst. I think if I hadn’t received that benefit earlier, I wouldn’t have been prepared to help out on the other side of that now.
Can you be a little bit more specific and tell me an example of a point in your life when something like that happened?
Actually, this is something less to do with the career that I had in the workplace but outside when I was working in banking. I was speaking to somebody and saying to them that although I enjoyed the job I was doing I wanted to get some board level experience. This person then listened to that and connected me to a friend of theirs, who was looking for somebody to perform that sort of role. I would never have been able to make that connection on my own. They talked me through what sorts of things are required of a board member and gave me the opportunity to have that kind of private, safe space type of conversation before engaging with them and taking a risk.
Then I had an interview and ended up joining the board of the organization as the vice chair. That opportunity then led to me taking another board level role. That led to me taking a third board level role as an audit chair, and I was doing all of them simultaneously. I couldn't have done that without that first person engaging with me and taking that risk and taking the time.
That means a mentoring relationship crucially changed the way you were personally evolving?
Yes, and I think the best mentoring relationships work on the personal level and then lead to the professional. I don't think it works so well the other way around.
What are the ingredients for a vital mentoring relationship?
There are some ground rules needed, I think, regarding how people are going to engage with each other, and what the expectations should be, and a level of realism is important. If you're going to be mentoring somebody but they think that you're going to be available 24 hours a day for contact, then maybe it's not going to work so well. If they can be realistic about how much time you have, then it can help.
If a mentee is focused in terms of what it is they really want, that helps. If they can be committed to it, that also helps, because from a mentor's point of view, if you're giving your time but the other person doesn't seem particularly committed, you're just going to be less likely to want to keep giving your time. It's a relationship after all, so it needs to be two way.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience as a mentor and how that is different compared to being a mentee?
Being the mentor, I think you need to be a bit more careful about the things that you say and the expectations that you set. The relationship is going to be a bit more bounded by what you say rather than what the mentee says, who is less experienced typically. You also need to be quite clear about what you can really provide and what commitment looks like for you, so that your mentee can understand what it is that you'll be looking for.
Can you relate to potential challenged of the mentee? Is the mentee aware of these issues?
I think any mentee who has a level of self-awareness is really helpful. As a mentor, you cannot create that in somebody. They tend to either have it or they do not. And again, like I said, personal first and professional second -- I think that's a really good basis for a well-structured mentoring relationship because of the level of honesty and trust.
In terms of content, does it make sense to define the content prior before entering the relationship, or do topics evolve over time?
I think it's a mixture, if I'm honest. It is a bit of both, because at the beginning of a mentoring relationship, the two parties may not be completely comfortable explaining everything. There is also that sense of “this-is-what-I-think-I-need-to-know-right-now” versus what I find out at a later stage that I needed to know. I think it develops over time.
Last question: What are you getting out of this experience as a mentor?
Well, if I think about what I do day to day for our organization, one of the things that makes me want to come to work every day is seeing people grow, seeing people take personal risks and get better at stuff through that kind of personal risk. I think that mentoring can be very similar to that. Obviously it's not inside your organization, it's outside. I am quite motivated by seeing that kind of growth.
That is great! Thanks.