Learning and Development

Mentoring – it’s maybe where the hardest work gets done

Mentoring pic

I’ve had these scribbles lying about on my makeshift desk since early lockdown.  Back in March I was asked by my neighbour Karen McCormick to speak at a webinar for the Inishowen Development Partnership‘s group of community mentors.  Karen & I go way back.  Over 15 years ago when she worked for Business in the Community in Derry I was part of her pool of business mentors.  Fast forward to today & mentoring is a lot more common.  Everyone knows that the trick is to have a mentor but be a mentor too because guess what – mentoring is one of the best learning and personal development opportunities out there and everyone has something to offer to someone else.

Anyway, the push to finally do something with the scribbles came yesterday when I heard Marcella Rudden from Cavan LEO talking about mentoring & coaching on yesterday’s RTE ReIgnite show with Aine Kerr.  So let’s start with the definition of a mentor.  The dictionary says “a trusted counsellor or guide” but in reality it’s usually so much more than this and in a business mentoring relationship, I’d argue that there’s a healthy dollop of networking thrown in.  (I saw an awful new word when I was researching – mentworking – ugh).  And before we start, let’s deal with the constant confusion between coaching and mentoring.  Coaching tends to be more specific and task/goal oriented e.g. teaching someone quite specifically how best to, say, manage a team or learn how to produce a budget.  Coaches are often paid and it’s usually a teacher/student type relationship where the coach knows about the specific topic, is teaching a certain skill and is in charge.

Mentoring is more relationship based, wider in scope and often lasts longer than coaching, although when I think about my own mentoring interactions, some have been as short as a coffee date and others have lasted for decades and still continue on.  Sometimes the relationship stalls but then is reignited again by the mentee at a future date, and for the mentor that can be an interesting experience if they’re open to it and have the availability.  For the longer relationships it takes a while to build up trust at the start because the mentee may feel vulnerable and nervous about sharing their problems and challenges.

It’s also about continous development – so there’s an element of helping the mentee prepare for the future (their future rather than the future of the organisation they may happen to work for at that time) as well as deal better with their current situation.

So these are the things that mentoring isn’t:

  • as we’ve already said, it isn’t coaching or training
  • it isn’t passive & it isn’t a one-way street; it requires both parties to engage, communicate and learn
  • it most certainly isn’t therapy and where it strays over into this territory, it can be hard for the mentor to get the discussions back on track.  It’s ok to touch on personal issues briefly in the overall context of the relationship but you must avoid getting bogged down and this becoming the focus of all you cover or talk about.  If that happens, you should gently steer the mentee towards accessing a different type of more personal support.
  • it isn’t a cure-all – it’s just one of the components of a mix of supports that people need in order to progress and to have more chance of personal and organisational success.

Top 10 Tips for becoming a great Mentor

It wouldn’t be my blog unless there was a top tips section folks!  Here we go:

  1. As you would expect with any (even informal) contractual relationship, set and agree the expectations at the very beginning.  Skip this step at your peril.
  2. Take some time to get to know the person if you don’t already know them and figure out what makes them tick.  Incidentally, this applies both ways.  If you’ve read any of my recent blogs you’ll know I wrote recently about people contacting others for help without ever bothering to find out anything about them except to know that they might be useful.
  3. Realise that each of your mentoring assignments are likely to be different and approach them as such.  Everyone has different styles and ways, different standards, different levels of ambition, different amounts of energy, different regard for timescales and deadlines.  I just counted up the number of people or teams that I’m in mentoring relationships with right now & it’s six with another looser circle further out of probably another ten or maybe more.  The deal is never the same.  Embrace the variety and don’t try to force every interaction to be the same.
  4. Linked to this last point, don’t make assumptions based on other mentoring relationships.  Also don’t make it about you.  Don’t immediately relate situations back to something that has previously happened to you.  Instead ask more questions and dig deeper.
  5. Learn the art of active listening.  There’s loads written about this so go & have a browse and start putting it into practice.
  6. And don’t feel you have to immediately respond or give instant advice or feedback.  It’s ok for you to go off & check something and then come back.
  7. Good mentors are willing to share, when appropriate, mistakes they have made or situations that have tripped them up.
  8. Look for opportunities to share with your mentee.  It could be making introductions for them or including them in an event where they’ve expressed an interest in getting to know more about an area.
  9. Lead by example of course.  This one goes without saying.
  10. Approach each mentoring relationship as though it will last forever.  This is what I do.  The honest truth is that you’ll give better long term guidance if you start off with that mindset.  As you can imagine, this advice is unpopular with anyone who is getting paid for mentoring as their approach has different drivers from people who are doing it for altruistic or personal development interest.

In my working life I’ve had two key mentors.  One I’ve known for 20 years and one for 30 years.  I stay closely in touch with them both still although it’s more of a social thing these days.  Occasionally I will run something past one of them and I’m likely to do that if I have an important decision to make & I want a trusted ear who will appraise the siituation in a less emotional way than I might.

Outside of situations where mentors are allocated to you, finding the right mentor and persuading them to engage with you isn’t always easy.  People will say no because they don’t have the bandwidth or because they don’t think the fit is right.  Take your time choosing and maybe draw up a short list before you start asking and try not to take it personally if they say no.  Strangely it doesn’t have to be someone who works in the same industry as you & often it’s better if they don’t.  As long as they’ve been where you are and can offer the appropriate level of steer & guidance.  I don’t really understand people who mentor others for payment but if you’re going down that route as a mentee then be even more careful who you dance with.  The business world is full of people who aren’t who or what they say they are but the process of finding that out for yourself can be a painful one.

I’ll leave you today with a rather splendid quote from Rosalynn Carter, wife of former US President Jimmy Carter.  “A leader takes people where they want to go; a great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be”.  She’s 93 & he’s almost 96 so they must be doing something right.