Successful Mentoring in a Week

[by Stephen Carter]

Though I hadn’t really planned this, over the last couple of years I’ve become involved with mentoring at a variety of levels. At the mentee level, I have been working with several management mentors at work, who have been helping me to understand the comings and goings of the Ontario Public Service. At the other extreme I’ve also served as a mentor for the Brain Injury Association of Toronto, and I’ve mentored a couple of times on a more personal, ad-hoc basis. Because I was doing it in a variety of contexts, I thought I might try to find some literature to give me some guidance. There are a number of books out there on the subject, but I’ve found most information on the subject comes from casual discussion.

When I was first looking for a book on mentoring, I thought I would try the Toronto Public Library. (Which is open at its regular hours, and with security, in spite of our mayor’s wishes.) I don’t know if the subject hasn’t really caught on or if it’s so popular that they can’t keep books in stock, but this was one of the few that they had available. So I snatched it up, and read it. It took a bit longer than a week, and was a bit more focused on specific mentoring within a business organization than I would like. Perhaps I will have to write something that is a bit more tailored to the personal, informal side of mentoring. But there were a number of lessons that were useful for any kind of mentoring.

My favourite story about mentoring refers to my first mentor through an official program, long enough ago that I now remember it fondly. We were both in an official program, supported by work; and were essentially assigned to have a relationship. It went very well; we met every month for the prescribed time; I’d go to his office and I’d devour his information on corporate management. And when we were done I realized I could have gotten the same thing from a PowerPoint presentation. It wasn’t that he was a bad mentor, or dry, or that he didn’t know his stuff; we just didn’t “click”. I never expect to see him again; nor did I ever see him outside our sessions. For me, I wanted something a little more out of a mentor: and is quite possible (even probable) that it is me who is difficult to “click” with. But when I do, the result is astounding. So I sought out more mentors: and I’ve found several since that time.

This book went through a variety of points, and broke them into seven divisions: one for each day of the week. It was like a class, and you’d read and digest a certain amount every day. Unfortunately the impression it left was that you could come to know the subject in one book and one week: which I don’t think is very realistic.

One point that was not made in this book very strongly, but I’ve experienced several times: mentoring could be and even should be a two-way learning experience. I’ve been involved in a diversity-management mentoring program whereby new hires from different backgrounds are encouraged to pursue management, while management gets the perspective of a different culture in their organization. It worked effectively on both sides: depending mostly the commitment of the individuals.

  • Mentoring has been around for a long time; it stems from an ancient term used in Greece thousands of years ago. So rather than being a modern development, it is something well-established in tradition.

  • It is important for the mentor to understand motivations: both of himself and of his mentee. Needs of the learner are important to understand, and to be sure that the mentor compliments those needs: or at least has access to complement them. This will relate to the context of the mentoring: whether work or personal, or related to a specific goal or outcome.

  • Limits (ground rules) should be established from the outset, so that both know the same expectations: in a formal system this will be defined, if informal it will be agreed on. Such things that should be established are when to begin and end, how often to meet, and establishing a “safe” context. In several of my mentorships we’ve specifically gone off-site in order that we’re sure not to be overheard in our discussions, so that we know we are “safe”. What is discussed in mentoring is always confidential; although anything can be brought up, the mentor need not be an expert on everything.

  • One of the best strategies for a mentor is to emulate those who have best taught her in her development, either personal or career or both.

  • It is essential to understand the context in which the relationship exists. If at work, that context needs to be front and centre: if not work-related, the basis of the relationship needs to be understood by both parties. Whatever the context, there should be a defined support and management role established.

  • Although similar to a teacher or coach, a mentor is neither. Elements of all three intersect. Mentors should understand where each ends and begins, and to what degree she is willing to step into other roles. If not willing or able to adapt to expectations that might come up, she needs to have access to resources that will fill the need.

  • A major point in the book had to do with learning cycles and learning styles. Each of us is different, and learns at rates and methods that can even be confusing to others. This is part of a mentoring relationship, and is potentially one of the reasons that randomly assigned mentors don’t work as well as those who are chosen.

  • As much as anything, a mentoring relationship is exactly that: a relationship. Ideally it continues beyond the limits defined, though it does not have to. The best mentors are able to nurture and build the relationship, and provide feedback in the requested context (as established in the second bullet bullet). Mentors can also blur into counsellors, and need to either be able to do so or have access to those who can.

This entry was posted in Beyond Materialism, Living in Canada, Modern Education, Personal, Professional and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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