Mentoring 101

Child learning to ride a bike with assistance from an adult

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

My good friend Suresh GP recently invited me to join him for an online discussion about mentoring. This was recorded and you can watch it on YouTube. During that chat, I told Suresh that I would write a blog and include some links to websites with more information about mentoring, so here we are.

What is mentoring?

I guess I should start by saying what mentoring is, and just as important what it isn’t.

Here is one useful definition from the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD). It is specifically about workplace mentoring:

Mentoring in the workplace tends to describe a relationship in which a more experienced colleague shares their greater knowledge to support the development of an inexperienced member of staff. It calls on the skills of questioning, listening, clarifying and reframing that are also associated with coaching.

And it defines the related practice of coaching as:

Coaching aims to produce optimal performance and improvement at work. It focuses on specific skills and goals, although it may also have an impact on an individual’s personal attributes such as social interaction or confidence. The process typically lasts for a defined period of time or forms the basis of an on-going management style.

If you follow the link to the CIPD above, then you can review the rest of their content on mentoring and coaching.

Another helpful definition of mentoring comes from the University of Reading, which has some great content covering many different aspects of mentoring. This time the definition relates to offering support to students:

Mentoring is to support and encourage people to manage their own learning in order that they may maximise their potential, develop their skills, improve their performance and become the person they want to be

Although the University’s definition is focussed on learning, and the CIPD definition is focussed on performance at work, the two definitions have a lot in common. Mentoring is NOT about teaching or telling people what to do; it’s about listening, clarifying, and reframing. It is about helping people to solve their own problems and learn for themselves, by listening attentively and sharing relevant experiences without attempting to provide all the answers. It does not involve instruction or measurement. Instead, the key activity is building a relationship based on critical but non-judgmental support and encouragement on the mentor’s side; and a commitment to making use of this from the person being mentored (mentee).

Mentoring can be just as important for personal growth, as it is for professional development. A new parent may seek out someone with more experience to help them think about their own parenting.  This is just as much mentoring as when someone finds a work-related mentor.

So, just for completeness, here is a Stuart Rance definition of mentoring that applies to a wide range of contexts:

Mentoring is a relationship in which a person with more experience supports another person to help them develop skills, knowledge, and experience they need to progress in the direction that they want to go.

What are the benefits of mentoring?

One of the great things about mentoring is that it provides benefits to both parties. The mentor can gain as much from the relationship as the mentee.

Here are some of the benefits of mentoring for the mentee

  • Enhanced confidence through affirmation of their competence
  • Better understanding of their own capabilities – both positive and negative insights
  • Ideas for personal or professional development
  • Help building a personal or professional network
  • A sounding board for developing their ideas

And here are some of the benefits of mentoring for the mentor

  • Better understanding of issues and problems faced by less experienced people
  • Understanding of development opportunities in their industry/workplace
  • Opportunities to think about their own personal journey, and where they might want to go next
  • Relationship building and growth of their own network
  • The sheer human pleasure of having helped someone

Every time I’ve mentored people, I’ve learned new things. Just because the mentee has less experience doesn’t mean that I can’t learn from them, they have often seen and done things that are completely outside my experience, and that I can learn from.

How to become a mentor

Many people think that they don’t have enough knowledge, experience, or self-confidence to mentor others, but we all have things we can share, and we can all make a contribution. In the same way everyone should also be a mentee, we all have things we can learn, and we all need someone to offer us feedback.

Starting out as a mentor isn’t as hard as people might think. Most of us have helped new, or less experienced colleagues at some point. If you do it willingly, enjoy it and are good at it, you may notice that you tend to get asked more often than others. You might even be approached by someone looking for a mentor. Or, if your organisation has a mentoring scheme, it is probably not too difficult to volunteer.

If you find that you want to do more than offer casual support, and decide you want to become a mentor, then I strongly recommend that you practice your listening skills. Remember also that it is your responsibility to model open, respectful, honest, and non-judgemental communication skills.  You’re not there to solve people’s problems for them, your role is to be a sounding board, to help people to think through their own situation, and decide what they want to do about it. You can, of course, share stories of your, and other people’s, experience of similar situations, but do not judge. Think about what is happening for the mentee and offer some insights into things they could try but leave space for them to decide for themselves what they want to do next.

How to find a mentor, how to be mentored

If you think you would like a mentor, here are some things to think about. The first thing to do is probably to think about yourself. What do you want to achieve? What do you need to get there? Who might be able to help you on your journey? Then you could approach a potential mentor and ask if they would be happy to talk to you about their experience, and your possible development.

Remember that mentoring doesn’t have to be a big, formal thing, mediated by an outside institution that assigns mentors, tracks progress, and generates reports. It can simply be taking an opportunity to talk to somebody you know and using them as a sounding board for your ideas. But some people may find a more structured relationship useful – and there can be different degrees of formality. You need to think about what would suit you best.

If your employer runs a mentoring scheme, or you belong to a professional body that helps to find mentors, then you may want to take advantage of this. Otherwise, you may need to find a mentor for yourself. This could be someone from within your own organization, or someone in the same industry as you, but it might also be someone from somewhere completely different. Maybe a family member can help you think about work relationships, or someone from a completely different industry can offer insight into your presentation skills.

Whether you have found a mentor by personal contact, or had one assigned to you, the next step is to discuss some ground rules. Agree things like:

  • How often are you going to meet, and how long for?
  • Will this be face-to-face, or will it be mediated by technology?
  • What do you both expect to get out of this relationship?
  • How will you establish trust, and how will you manage any confidential information?
  • How long do you expect this to last, or is it to be open-ended?
  • When will you review progress and decide whether this is working for both of you?

I think it’s worth writing these things down and both formally agreeing to them. This demonstrates that you are both taking the mentoring seriously, and can help to clarify what you are doing and prevent misunderstandings.

It is really important to be honest with yourself, and your mentor. Tell them what is going well and what issues you have. The more honest and open you are about what is happening, the more likely it is that the mentor will offer useful insights and helpful suggestions. Try some of the things that the mentor suggests and see how well they work for you, but don’t worry if they don’t work out. This is your progression, not the mentor’s.

As you work together you may find that things go really well, that both of you are gaining a lot from the relationship. You want to extend it, and to progress to new and more challenging goals. However, you may find that things are going less well. Mentoring is all about relationships, and it’s hard to predict whether there’s going to be a good fit. There’s no shame in finding that a particular mentoring relationship isn’t working and it’s quite OK to end it once this becomes clear, with no hard feelings on either side. Don’t be put off trying again.

Conclusion

Mentoring is a great way to develop both professionally and personally. But it’s not a substitute for training or management, and if you wish to be a mentor or a mentee it is vital that you understand this. You can find a mentor in many different places, not necessarily from within your own organization, you may even want to work with more than one mentor, focussing on different development areas.

An employer or a professional organization may be able to help you find a mentor, but you can also find one for yourself. This can be a simple informal relationship, or it can be formalized regular sessions, but in either case it is good to agree ground rules to make sure you have matching expectations.

The mentor can gain as much from the relationship as the mentee, this is not a one-way transfer of value, it is a genuine relationship from which every participant benefits.

As always, please let me know if you find the ideas in this blog helpful, or if you have any improvement suggestions. But please don’t ask me to find you a mentor. Look closer to home.

 

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