Apprenticeships 6 min read

What it's like to be mentored by a FTSE 100 CEO

Katie Fiddaman

Katie Fiddaman posted on

We sat down with Samuel Okusaga, a third year degree apprentice working within the Student Experience team at Pearson College London. He bravely asked John Fallon, CEO of Pearson Plc to mentor him during the first year of his apprenticeship. We interviewed Sam to see what it’s like to be mentored by a FTSE 100 CEO.

What are your meetings with John normally about?

I tend to aim for three meetings with John per year, which I prepare for well in advance and I propose things to him and ask questions; in the next meeting, I would follow up.

In my most recent meeting, I showed him a report that I created for him and we caught up on some projects that we had spoken about previously. After that, we had a general catch up about how we have both been and what I have been up to. I then asked him questions that I had prepared and then proposed some ideas to him.

Can you give examples? Was this things to do with your job, or your degree?

A bit of both. So I try to spread it out between three main areas: my degree, my job role and then my social enterprise that I run as well. For each one, I aim to add value, whilst also asking him to add value; I want it to be mutually beneficial. In terms of my degree programme, I asked him for ideas for my dissertation that is meaningful to Pearson as I can do the research for my final project. I asked him if he had any ideas and he put me in touch with Rod Bristow, the President of the Core Markets, and I am going to have a meeting with him about that.

How did you get to be mentored by the CEO of Pearson plc?

It's actually an interesting story. When you start as a new employee at Pearson, you get to go for breakfast with John Fallon, the CEO. I have always been the type of person who is an opportunist and before I joined the business, I told myself I wanted to meet him both to build a network and so that I was on his radar. Luckily, that opportunity was there and I knew that if I did not do something with that opportunity, I would miss that chance and regret it. The breakfast consisted of John giving updates about Pearson and then he opened it up for people to start asking questions about their departments.

I decided that I wanted to ask him something different and that he would remember. So I asked him two questions: “Can I introduce myself?” I told him that I was 18 years old and I asked him, “If you were to meet the 18-year-old version of yourself, what would be your three top tips?” I often ask this question to people who I look up to as I see it as a way for them to reflect on their experiences as well as giving advice to me. The second question I asked him was, “I really think I can learn from you, and I would love to work with you; have you ever mentored a student before and if you haven’t, will you be my mentor?” and he said, “That is very brave of you, no one has ever asked me that question before… I would be happy to!”
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What is it like to be mentored by a FTSE 100 CEO?

It’s really cool. It’s cool because of who he is and I don’t think it has really sunk in because he has been so humble and casual about it. At the start, I would feel really nervous about the meetings because of the scale of the company and he is the boss of everyone. After our first meeting, he made me feel so comfortable and showed that he genuinely wanted to get to know and support me.

He has allowed me to increase my network within Pearson; I have now met a few of the Executive Board members. He has introduced me to them just because he mentors me and they know about my degree apprenticeship programme, my social enterprise and it seems that they want to support me in those elements of my life. It feels like it is a really rare opportunity and I always tell him how grateful I am.

For me, my parents were not from a wealthy background and therefore all of the connections I have made have been down to me. So, what John has done for me is really helpful for my current situation and future.

What have you learned from him over the time he has mentored you?

Firstly, one thing he always says is that he got to where he was by building relationships with people and by being kind and treating people with respect and being a positive person to be around. He says that, at the end of the day, no matter where you are in the world and whatever systems are in place, everyone is a human being. People have emotions and people shouldn’t discriminate and if people like you, they are more likely to help you to get somewhere. Therefore, treating people well and building genuine sustainable relationships with people should be a priority.

Secondly, always do what you love. That’s interesting because I think that people always say that but coming from his position and explaining why he says that is really important. He says that if you are doing what you love, you will always do it well as you won’t see it as a burden. You will be happy to put in 110% all of the time, without feeling like you are forcing yourself to do something. This way, you are always improving and succeeding because you are doing good work and you want to do good work. If you have that, money will follow, because people will want to work with you.

Finally, never be fearful of the hierarchy or the system. Do not think that you have to follow every rule; bend the laws. Don’t think that you cannot push yourself or reinvent something just because others thought that you couldn’t. For example, when I asked him to be my mentor, that was putting myself out there to achieve and not being afraid to ask a question to a much more senior member of staff than me.

What would you like to develop in the future?

With John, I will definitely try to create and build a sustainable relationship. I would like to be able to still meet with him and update him on what I am doing in my life, wherever I go. I also aim to be able to add value to John as well as I progress and become more successful. Whether this is giving insights or reverse mentoring, in order to build that sustainable and mutually beneficial relationship. I want to add value, not always take take take.

In terms of the future, around a year ago, I considered my three options: going into consultancy, staying at Pearson, or becoming a full time entrepreneur. Since I started my business, I have always had to balance it with something else and I have never had a sole focus on it so it would be interesting to see what I could achieve in a year with my business compared to what I have been doing up until now.

Now, as things are going, I think that it would be smart for me to stay at Pearson; maybe in a different role to the one I am now as I am building a network with people near the top. I might have opportunities that I have not even thought about.

What opportunities have you been able to gain from being mentored by a FTSE 100 CEO?

In terms of practical opportunities, I have had access to spaces that I wouldn’t have had before. For example, last year I was able to host an event at 80 Strand under my social enterprise name. This was a networking event for students from diverse backgrounds in London to mingle and listen to industry leaders and other speakers, such as John Fallon.

Another opportunity is that I have convinced him to come and visit the college in the Autumn term to do an industry challenge with the students at Pearson Business School. Another one would be that I am able to do a piece of research for the CEO of the company as part of my dissertation. If that is done well, I don't know where that could take me because if I can demonstrate that I can deliver useful research for it would really help my career.

Being able to gain access and meet other Executive members so that they know about me is a really exciting opportunity as there are a lot of people in the business and for them to know me is really great.

Finally, John has given me an extensive growth mindset where I really feel like I can believe in myself about what I can achieve in life. When he talks about his own life and where he has come from motivates me to continue to do what I am doing and be like him one day. It has been motivational and inspiring and shown I shouldn’t limit myself and the power of building good connections.

What it's like to be mentored by a FTSE 100 CEO
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