Why do people seek to mentor or be mentored?
Unsurprisingly people seek mentors to help progress their careers, perhaps get them to the next level, be a soundboard (outside their management chain), finesse their approach, provide a different perspective, decode the organisational sub-culture (how things really are), understand how things operate at a more senior level, or perhaps for a myriad of other reasons.
People who have already had full and exciting careers may look to mentor others as a way of ‘giving back’ to the organisation, or of sharing their skills and experience. They sometimes perceive a skills gap and want to address it, or have identified someone with energy, ability and will to progress and want to help them. Some see mentoring as a way of testing their own knowledge, tapping into new ideas from people who have different experiences (enhancing the two-way beneficial nature of mentoring). Others take up mentoring as they are flattered to be asked.
It is also common for people who are at a career midpoint to both seek a mentor to reignite their career, whilst also using their own experience to mentor others too. This latter group have the advantage as they experience both sides of the mentoring relationship enabling them to spot ways to enhance the experience, perhaps more quickly than those who only see one side of the mentoring equation.
Often people find mentors informally, perhaps choosing a mentor as they admire, trust, respect them, or think the mentor can help them progress. Therefore, morally as well as sensibly it is important that we learn to ask ourselves some questions about what our motives for mentoring or being mentored are and what we wish to get out of the relationship. Failure to do this, as either a mentor or a mentee can lead to disengagement, poor prioritisation of mentoring meetings and disappointment.
So if you are thinking of entering into a mentoring relationship, or are already in one, ask yourself (and be honest), what is your aim? Consider if it is compelling enough to commit to the relationship, even when time is challenged, work problems arise, or the other person makes you feel uncomfortable (they will at times and that is part of the mutual learning process).
Some organisations invest a budget and time commitment to make mentoring happen, managing the process of pairing mentors with mentees and investing in training participants entering the scheme. Other organisations rely on an informal organic process, accepting that mentees will seek out their own mentors if they wish to be mentored and mentors will make their interest know if they wish to mentor. Also people may seek mentors outside their organisations by seeking people through professional associations, networking, from recommendations from others, or by targeting industry guru’s.
Whatever the reason or process for seeking a mentor or mentee it is worth just recapping on the benefits to organisations and individuals of the mentoring process.
Support - whether you are new to the job/field/organisation or sector, returning from a career break or struggling to break through to the next grade, having an independent, non-judgemental person who can act as a sounding board is helpful.
A mentor can signpost, advise, give a different perspective, provide insight, explain nuances and so on. They can provide information that is not immediately obvious via other routes. Also they provide a safe space to ask what may seem really naive questions.
Promoting diversity - mentoring can support organisations in improving the diversity of people who make it to specific roles, or levels, in the organisation hierarchy.
Inspiration - mentoring by role models, people who have overcome adversity and proved that success is possible for all, can inspire and energise others to follow suit.
Inside Information - mentors can help mentees understand what it feels like to be in a particular role, field of expertise, department, and different organisation and so on. They can highlight the challenges and opportunities available that may not be apparent from job adverts or career path information.
Career path and development advice - a mentor can often highlight where it is possible to adapt skills to change direction, where training is available, different ways to learn new skills or get new experience. Mentors can help mentees assess their readiness for new roles and support them in their applications. Occasionally mentors may be able to tap into opportunities by using their own established networks.
Dealing with failure - mentors provide a safe space to share fears, worries and acknowledge mistakes. Mentors can provide their own ‘war stories’ and wise words to ensure mistakes are learnt from rather than hidden and glossed over.
Developing interpersonal skills - mentors hone their skills of coaching, listening, discussing (not telling), persuading (mentees do not have to act on advice), patience, rapport building, emotional intelligence and so on. Anyone who thinks mentoring is about telling someone how to do things will be very disappointed. Mentees will challenge, debate, explore and can be the most curious of individuals. Also they will often act as critical friends as they want to really understand who, what, why, when, where and how - as well as how much. A mentor not prepared to go to these depths should hang up their wise wizardry robes now!
Developing self-awareness - mentoring is a voluntary relationship, neither party is obliged to enter into or sustain the relationship if it is not working. This means that the relationship requires each party to be self-aware of their impact on the other and to not just give, but also seek and be prepared to act on feedback from the other.
Boosting Confidence - having time invested in you by a mentor who has already been successful in their career can increase your feelings of self-worth and give you that confidence boost you need. Being told by someone who is perceived to be an expert in the field that you are doing something right somehow carries more weight and affirmation potential than just being told it by your boss. But this confidence boost is not just one way. Mentors find that being sought out by aspiring talent as a mentor, having their ideas validated and explored by keen minds and found to be true and being seen as a trusted adviser can boost their own confidence. The benefits are two-way.
So, as mentoring relationships may arise for a variety of reasons and open the door to a range of benefits, it makes sense that how the relationship ‘operates’ is going to vary too. Yet whilst mentoring is considered a vibrant part of the workplace learning and development menu, there is often anxiety over how it ‘should’ be done, as though there is an elusive magic formula for mentoring that must be adopted. The simple message is that entering into a mentoring relationship requires an open and honest conversation between the two parties as to how it will operate. For those looking for pointers as to what that conversation may cover, here are some ideas:
Thoughts for mentors
Whilst the relationship is voluntary, the chances are the mentor has more experience and may be in a more senior position. Mentees may feel they are not ‘allowed’ to challenge back, end the relationship or give feedback to a more senior mentor. Indeed the power position may make it difficult for mentees to ask about this. Hence there is more responsibility on the mentor to ensure mutually agreeable process, expectations and ground rules are in place and to explicitly give permission for the mentee to treat this as an equal relationship with equal rights and responsibilities.
The mentor provides advice, expertise, knowledge, insight and so on. Also they may coach, explore and encourage the mentee. However, mistakes mentors can make is to assume that the learning is one-way, their advice must be followed, their experience makes them always right and that being a mentor means they can go outside the realms of the agreed parameters (work) and start advising on life, marriage and so on. Mentoring is not counselling and the relationship fails or succeeds on the basis of agreed boundaries and mutual respect.
A mentee will often want to know how a mentor has dealt with similar issues, how they got to where they are and so on. In sharing their experience the mentor provides confidence, motivation, inspiration and practical approaches to help the mentee overcome their own perceived barriers. Asking mentees to consider where there may be similarities and differences in their own experience and to explore how this knowledge could help them, will help the mentee make the most of this information. The role of the mentor is not just to provide passive information but to actively encourage the mentee to explore, challenge, adapt and creatively apply new information in ways that are relevant to their circumstances. In short mentors help mentees develop critical thinking and a creative process.
A mentor offers a sounding board and a safe place to share ideas and explore challenges. However, mentors need to guard against becoming unwitting participants in criticism of colleagues or the organisation. If there are HR issues a mentor needs to be able to signpost mentees to the correct channels for dealing with complaints and grievances. Whilst mentors can provide advice on approaches to dealing with difficult behaviours they need to be clear on where their responsibilities end and where the organisation processes need to be invoked. There is a danger of mentees later treating a conversation with a mentor as a ‘formal’ notification of a complaint to the organisation. Be very clear at the start of the relationship what you will do if you are presented with information that constitutes gross misconduct either by or to your mentee.
Thoughts for mentees
Well done for deciding to enter into a mentoring relationship, what a wonderful opportunity this is, so here are some ideas to ensure you don’t ‘mess it up’.
When you seek a mentor be clear what you want to achieve then choose someone who can help you. Choosing someone just because they are senior and you like them may seem a good plan but if you want to develop your commercial skills and they have none, is it really a good match?
Mentoring is a relationship, which means it is two-way. Take an active not passive role in the relationship. You have equal responsibility for ensure the relationship works and you are getting what you need from it. Anyone who says ‘I had a mentor for a year and it didn’t help me’ needs to reflect on whose fault that was!
It is not a marriage - you can end the relationship at any time and that is ok, regularly check with your mentor how it is working for you both and if there is value in continuing, or if it has reached a natural and worthy conclusion.
If you want your mentor to change their approach then tell them, what they don’t know they can’t address. Be open to giving and seeking feedback - this is part of the mutual gift of the mentoring relationship.
Above all - be curious and open to ideas. Be willing to ask questions from a position of really wanting to understand. Explore what you are being told, ask who, what, when, where, why and how. Learn to ask really great follow up questions to extract the maximum learning from your mentor.
Apply what you hear to your own circumstances and watch your vocabulary. Instead of resorting to words like ‘but’, ‘except’ and ‘can’t’, challenge yourself to adapt, adopt and explore ideas by using language such as ‘how can I’, ‘what if I did’, ‘what else could make it work’, ‘how could that work here’ and so on.
Seek learning not affirmation. Some people are so in awe from their mentor that they find themselves describing only the things they did well so that they get a ‘pat on the head’. But is this learning or ego boosting? The real opportunity for learning is in exploring mistakes, conundrums and challenges in an open, honest and vulnerable way. Be brave by being honest.
Be open to ideas. Whilst you are not obliged to follow all the advice you receive you are obliged to consider the ideas, information and advice with an open mind.
Take responsibility for identifying the focus of the mentoring, identifying topics to explore, following through on actions and reporting on progress.
Respect the time of your mentor, keep appointments, keep to time, prepare in advance. Always thank them for their time and advice.
Be respectful when talking to others about your mentor, if there are problems with the relationship then discuss it with your mentor.
Be clear when you are ready for the mentoring to end. Agree up front that this can be from either the mentor or mentee and that is ok. After the relationship ends, keep your mentor in your network, give them progress updates and share your successes.
Pass on your own learning to others.