The Art of Mentoring

Congratulations! If you're reading this article, it's probably because you're interested in mentoring or you're considering being a mentor. Unless you're just very nosey or opened the wrong document.  This article clarifies what mentoring is, provides a background and some of the key attributes needed.

History 

Let’s start by going back in time….(imagine the ‘Back To The Future’ theme gently playing in the background)

The origin of the word Mentor can be traced back to Greek mythology when Mentor, the son of Heracles was placed in charge of Odysseus’ son. Now, we’re not expecting togas here we just want to clarify that mentoring is about taking someone under your wing and helping them to learn and develop.

So mentoring is nothing new. In his 1916 book, ‘An Introduction To The Philosophy of Education’ John Dewey stressed the importance of the individual’s own experiences in the learning process along with the value of interaction to create a positive learning environment. This is exactly what mentoring is about. It’s about taking experiences and having the opportunity to discuss them with a trusted person.

We would define mentoring as: ‘a relationship where an individual receives support with their personal development from someone with attributes they aspire to’.

So, as much as people may enjoy attending training courses, it’s only part of the story. There’s so much to learn from our experiences and the people we interact with (whether a colleague or your best pal) which mentoring can explore.

If you’re thinking about becoming a mentor, let’s take a look at what this might involve for you and your…..erm, hang on, what is the other person called? We use the word mentee but you will also see the word protégé being used in certain texts about the topic. The later derives from the French word to protect and although you may want to do this for your mentor, it symbolises that they need protecting and suggests a more paternal relationship which could be detrimental for your mentee. We would rather this was more of an equal relationship. By the way, which came first the chicken or the egg? The mentor or mentee? We’ll leave you to ponder that while thinking what a mentor needs:

The Mentor Needs…

… to be prepared to come to the table with a beverage of their choice, a chocolate biscuit and a mixture of the following:

  • Knowledge – familiarity with facts and principles; what you know

  • Skill – ability; what you do

  • Experience – personal encounters or undergoing something; what you’ve done 

  • Behaviour – the way in which we conduct ourselves; how you do it

Let’s break these down a little further and think about what these four areas may include. Before we give you the answers, you may want to jot down what your thoughts are for each of the titles above and then compare them with our thoughts.

Knowledge: 

  • Organisational – such as the culture, characteristics, key departments and people;

  • Sources of advice and support; 

  • Learning from achievements, successes and failures (what these feel like and how it’s different for different people);

  • Of being helped (possibly having been a mentee themselves); you may have benefitted from mentoring in the past, possibly without even realising it. 

  • Who to refer to if I can’t answer questions (no-one expects you to be an expert in everything!).

Skill:

  • Motivating and encouraging (to channel the mentee’s energy into constructive change, new challenges and overcoming difficulties)

  • Establishing a strong professional relationship (building rapport and being empathetic to appreciate how the mentee thinks, feels and behaves)

  • Active listening (being able to really focus on what the mentee is saying without your own thoughts crowding out the mentee’s words)

  • Effective questioning (being able to ask the right questions to encourage self reflection and build self awareness)

  • Challenging when the mentee could go ‘the extra mile’.

Experience:

  • Facing difficulties (what that felt like and how those difficulties were overcome)

  • Being responsible for yourself and your actions

  • Developing people and working with others (possibly having been a Mentor before);

  • Meeting new challenges (e.g. how we react to change);

  • Coping with pressure (what are your coping strategies, particularly during periods of change).

Behaviour:

  • Enthusiasm (being genuinely interested in the mentee and his/her concerns, needs, dreams and aspirations; having a positive outlook)

  • Being open and honest (prepared to share your own experience of similar issues, be honest about yourself and honest about the mentee);

  • Remaining positive (does not seek to reinforce any negative aspects of the organisation);

  • Genuinely cares about personal development;

  • Patience (retains a warm and friendly demeanour so the mentee wants to be around them and not scared to ask questions).

If you’re crying in a corner now, please come back. These lists are not a ticklist of mandatory attributes; they are purely an indication of what you may need to draw on. It’s more important to consider what the mentee is looking for from a mentoring relationship.

On one side, a mentee may think that you offer a service whereby they can whinge or moan. That’s why you have a partner. Or a dog. That’s not what mentoring is about – this is a professional and objective relationship.

Other mentees may be coming to you expecting to be told what to do or be given the answer to problems. Although this may be relevant at times, it’s also about helping the mentee to find their own answers wherever they can. We don’t want to create a dependent parent/child relationship – that just makes your Christmas present list even longer. It’s also important to understand that learning is a continuous process rather than a one off quick fix.

In general, a mentee could be looking for support, guidance, expertise, someone to bounce ideas around with or simply reassurance when things haven’t gone as planned.

We mentioned earlier that mentoring is a relationship and with that in mind, we have developed a four stage process to help keep this relationship on track. We have included an indicative question at each stage to help bring this to life:

Connection

  • ‘How do we fit?’

Expectation

  • ‘What do you want to achieve?’

Support

  • ‘How are you doing?

Conclusion

  • ‘What happens next?’

These stages form the basis of our workshop. You may be asked about these at some point if you’re attending.

An effective mentor is mentee centred, doing the right thing for the mentee even if this means referring the mentee to another person or specialist (even counselling in some cases).

Although some mentors may feel they have let the mentee down by referring them to someone else, recognising and working within your own limitations is the right and proper thing to do, keeping you and your mentee safe.

Mentoring is such a valuable part of the learning process, that even the most successful people have mentors. Here’s some examples:

  • Stanley Kubrick mentored Steven Spielberg; 

  • Mahatma Gandhi mentored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Carl Perkins mentored Beatle George Harrison at the height of his fame;

  • Ivan Lendl mentors Andy Murray; 

  • Finally, Freddie Laker famously mentored Richard Branson.

Mentoring can help you make a difference in people’s lives and careers. You are embarking on a journey that can be very rewarding. Enjoy the experience.

To finish this article and clarify the some of the differences between mentoring and other development methods, we have listed some definitions below and we’d like you to match them to the relevant development tool. You will be given the answers at your workshop (or if you’re not coming to one of our workshops, please feel free to contact us):

Definitions

  • “A relationship where an individual receives support with their personal development from someone with attributes they aspire to”

  • “Helping someone to learn the skills for the role they are in – generally by a colleague in the same role”

  • “Unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance; helping them to learn rather than teaching them”

  • “Guiding or directing a group; establishing a clear vision, sharing that vision with others so that they will follow willingly, providing the information, knowledge, and methods to realise that vision, and coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members or stakeholders”

  • “Adopting or recommending a plan or support process where a person is helped to solve a personal problem”

  • “Educating and instructing a person; Organised activity aimed at imparting information and/or instructions to improve the recipient's performance or to help him or her attain a required level of knowledge or skill”

Development Tools

  • Mentoring 

  • Buddying 

  • Coaching 

  • Leading 

  • Counselling 

  • Training

Authors: Mandy Holloway & Tom Welburn, who as directors at Footprint Learning & Development Ltd have over 50 years experience in the L&D field.

If you would like more information, please contact us.

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