mentoring

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.

 

Mentoring one-to-ones up for grabs at #NDW16 in Skibbereen

kevin

Anyone who knows me will know that the Kevin Spacey quote above is one of my favourites and I use it (overuse it?) often.  All the best people I can think of are those who extend a helping hand.  It’s a theme fundamental to how I operate and have always operated and it works for me and many other people.  Also called paying it forward, paying it back, karma and a multitude of other titles – I like the #giversgain label that Camilla Long introduced me to.  The basic premise is to help other people and do so on the basis that you will receive nothing back in return.  The reality is if you give to the world, it gives back.

When I lived in London the last time around, I used to run what I called Entrepreneur Friday every 2 or 3 weeks in my Southbank “office” – a booth in Le Pain Quotidien beside the Royal Festival Hall.  I found it an easy and convenient way to see the startup entrepreneurs and wannapreneurs that contact me to ask for a bit of help or guidance.  Also it was a good way to spend a bit of focused time with some of the startup entrepreneurs already in my network – the ones who would sidle up to me at a busy evening event and start talking to me about some incredibly important or private aspect of their business.  In the 3 1/2 years I lived on London’s Southbank I probably met with over a hundred early stage founders in this way and together we addressed some of their challenges.  Without giving too many secrets away, here are just a few of the topics we covered together:

  • Do you think this idea has legs?
  • How can I get my team to be more productive?
  • How can I reach out to a certain person & attract them onto my Board?
  • Will you help me revisit and improve my business model?
  • I’m not an accountant but I want to produce better cash flow forecasts (we did that one with large sheets of paper for starters; sometimes old school is best)
  • I am making a mess of recruitment; how can I get better outcomes?
  • Will you go through this investment offer with me and tell me honestly what you think?
  • Can my small company enter the government market without spending a fortune on consultancy fees?
  • I want to buy my partner out; where and how should I start?

It works best when the founder or entrepreneur comes along with a specific challenge or ask and we work through that together and maybe reach a conclusion or way forward.  Often the person knows the answer themselves and just needs validation or someone else to run it past in confidence or look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and add some finesse.

Without a co-founder, life as a startup CEO can be a very lonely place.

I’ve carried on doing a bit of this since I moved back to Ireland and I’m going to offer 10 x 30 minute slots to any entrepreneurs or people thinking about starting a new business attending National Digital Week in Skibbereen between 10 & 12 November.  You can find out more details about the event and get tickets here

I was lucky enough to be at last year’s NDW and carried out a very informal version of this exercise which resulted in some rather interesting conversations – so I’m hoping for the same or even better this year.  Conference attendees – the gauntlet has been thrown down…

Here’s the deal.  If you would like one of my 10 x 30 minute sessions to discuss in confidence any aspect of your business that you believe I can help you with, contact me via my blog, my LinkedIn or Twitter with a couple of sentences of background.  No business plans, pitch decks or NDAs please!  It has to be something that we can cover within a strict 30 minute window so the onus is on YOU to make that work.

But be quick.  I’ve had the first applicant already on Twitter whilst writing this blog.  It’s @CultureArk and the business looks intriguing.  If I receive more than 10 requests I’ll choose the 10 that I think I can add most value to on the basis of what you’ve told me.