Who needs a mentor anyway?

Mentoring seems to be on the rise in the self-help circles. There’s an increasing number of businesses also introducing mentoring schemes most often for managers and leaders.

And some particularly forward-looking organisations are introducing more inclusive mentoring schemes such as reverse mentoring. In this week’s blog we’re going to look at:

• What is mentoring and how it differs from other personal development approaches such as coaching; also, what is the role of the mentor?

• How do you pick a mentor?

• And then finally, who needs a mentor anyway, where I want to talk about the important role of a wider support network for your personal development.

So first up, what is mentoring and how is it different from other things like coaching? And what is the role of a mentor?

What is mentoring?

As I see it, and I give and receive mentoring and coaching on a regular basis, mentoring tends to relate more to supporting others’ development by referring to your own experience, in a particular area of work or life.

I most typically mentor people on running small businesses but you might mentor others in your particular area of experience.

Coaching, on the other hand, involves more of a collaborative relationship with the coachee – the person being coached – where you are working together on an issue brought by the coachee and the coach provides structure and process to help investigate the issue and support the coachee in resolving it. Examples might be dealing with a difficult person at work or moving roles or careers.

Both coaches and mentors use (or should use) similar skills – active, careful listening; open, curious questioning; suspension of judgement and unconditional positive regard for the other person; and promoting ownership by the mentee or coachee of the issue and the resolution to the issue.

What is the role of a mentor?

I like to use the analogy though of eyeball to eyeball vs shoulder to shoulder to describe the difference between mentoring and coaching. For me, mentoring tends to be more advice-giving, been-there-done-it storytelling-based. With coaching more shoulder-to-shoulder collaborative exploration with the coach alongside the coachee but not necessarily providing advice or personal experiences, unless it’s appropriate or invited by the coachee; even then, it’s done with more caution in the coaching context.

Another thing to be aware of is that professional credentialing of coaching and mentoring isn’t always straightforward. While there are professional bodies that represent both disciplines, there are some excellent coaches and mentors who do not have this kind of accreditation just as there are some less than ideal coaches and mentors who are credentialed to the max. Also many organisations these days who have introduced coaching or mentoring programmes so that staff members can provide this kind of support to colleagues, will often only have provided limited training and briefing to the people who are going to take on these roles (particularly with mentoring), although in some organisations there will be a coaching or mentoring professional development pathway provided for those people doing it, where they will get some kind of certification at the end of it.

And what is reverse mentoring or inclusive mentoring (more my phrase)? Well, the idea here is that subject matter expertise doesn’t necessarily come from more senior people but is just as likely to come from people less experienced than you in years but more experienced than you in particular areas. Some organisations have taken up this idea with their schemes with anybody mentoring anybody, it’s just about access to the experience that the mentee wants to get to.

How do you pick a mentor?

This all brings us on to how do you pick a mentor? Well I’ve already talked about the kind of skills you would expect to see in an effective mentor – listening, questioning, not judging, being curious, positive, supportive. So when you are looking for a mentor, do make sure that as well as finding the experience you are looking for, that you also find someone who can mentor effectively rather than taking a more ‘tell’ paternal approach which won’t necessarily help your personal or professional development.

You might also want to think about how well-networked the person is (either within your organisation or industry or area of expertise) because that can be a great help to getting introductions to other people who may be able to support you. With coaching and with mentoring through, it can often be the case that there is an initial meeting, often called a chemistry meeting, where both potential mentor and potential mentee can check each other out, see if there’s a rapport there, a respect, mutual interests, a possibility of working well together. In the end, to work well, the decision to work together should be a decision that both parties make.

You also need to think about what’s often called contracting – so how often will you meet, how long for, levels of confidentiality in the discussion, expectations for you as a mentee and of you (will you be open, honest, willing to try new things, willing to be vulnerable and so on and will the mentor be supportive, respectful, inquisitive and provide a safe environment for you as a mentee to explore issues and challenges) – so get these rules of engagement agreed upfront and ideally written down.

Those are the top things I would bear in mind when picking a mentor. When looking for a mentor, it is honestly amazing how readily the universe sometimes provides…once you’re clear on what you need, most people are absolutely delighted to be asked to be a mentor as it gives them the opportunity to give back or pay it forward, to hone their own skills, to be appreciated, there’s a whole list of benefits for the mentor. But still, you may have to kiss a few frogs before you find the right mentor for you and it may take a while, so stick with it. And it may be that after a couple of meetings either one or both of you aren’t feeling it and at that point, it’s fine to call it a day and move on. The relationship needs to be working for both parties so do continue to check in with each other that that’s the case.

Why having a support network is super important

The last thing I wanted to touch on is to bear in mind that having a mentor isn’t the be-all and end-all of personal development. In fact, one of the most important exercises that I run through with almost all of my coachees, involves thinking through your wider support network and making sure you have as many bases covered as possible.

So, do you have a mentor – someone who’s experience you can refer to? Do you have a coach – someone who you are able to problem solve with? Do you have a counsellor – someone who can provide you with emotional support? What about a cheerleader – someone who gives you with a positive boost when you need it? An advocate – particularly in the work context this can be important as this is often someone who will introduce you or champion you and your career.

Of course I don’t mean you need all of these roles to be filled literally by professional mentors, coaches, counsellors or…indeed…cheerleaders, I mean do you have these roles covered by someone, or ideally by more than one person in your network, so that you can feel supported by a group of people who have your best interests at heart.

More often than not, when I work with professionals on this question, they will have either a lot of roles missing from their list, or they may have one person who fulfils most roles for them and that can be a little risky.

My advice is to get all these roles filled, by as diverse a group as possible, and keep developing the group, keep looking for people you can add as others drift away. So who needs a mentor anyway, when you’ve got cheerleaders, a counsellor, coaches and people championing your cause.

For more great info on personal and professional development and the value of mentoring and support networks, you can get in touch with the amazing team here at Strengthscope.

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