When entering into a mentoring relationship, it is important to understand what it is that you are looking for from the process. This goes as much for the mentor as it does for the mentee.
Coaching and mentoring
It is important to be clear on what mentoring actually is, and, in particular, how it differs from coaching. I should first declare an interest. I hold a diploma in business coaching from the European Mentoring and Coaching Council. I therefore come to mentoring with a coaching mindset.
Much has been written about the difference between coaching and mentoring. A simple explanation would be: coaching facilitates thinking in the coachee and offers no solutions; mentoring involves the passing on of knowledge and experience.
Each approach has its own merits, and it is therefore important to understand what sort of relationship you will be entering into. I have come across many coaches who are really acting as mentors, unable to resist the temptation of diving in and telling someone what they should do (I have certainly been guilty of this at times myself).
The outcome of either coaching or mentoring should be an individual who is in a better position to make decisions, which are based upon their own objectives and motivations. A good mentoring relationship will therefore be one where the mentee is challenged and listened to, but where the mentor is able to bring in experience where necessary – but sparingly.
Choosing a mentor
One should be aware of a mentor that gives too much advice. Just because something happened to them does not mean that it will happen to others in the same way – one course of action doesn’t mean that’s the right course of action for somebody else who may have different values and objectives.
For example, it may be natural to choose a mentor who has experience in one’s own sector. There is undoubtedly an advantage to be had from getting help from someone who has walked the walk and has the scars to show for it. This can also be a disadvantage if the mentor is too quick to offer advice based on their own experiences, though.
In coaching terms, this is known as coaching the person, not the problem. Someone with great experience who is acting as a mentor may find themselves drawn to the problem, rather than helping the mentee to learn how to solve the problem themselves.
The mentee’s commitment
By the same token, a mentee entering into a mentoring relationship should not expect to be fed all the answers. Ideas, options, thoughts, yes, but the solutions should be your own. The mentee should be the one doing the work.
This means bringing the issues to be discussed to the meetings, and acting based on the discussions. If you want to get the most out of your mentor, you need to commit to the relationship and act professionally towards them.
Setting the tone
The first session of the mentoring relationship is important, as this sets the tone. When I work with a new coachee, I make it clear that I am not there to give answers. I may have some experience in the issue being discussed, but they will be brought in only once the mentee has exhausted their own ideas. Therefore, any suggestions I offer will not prevent the mentee from their own fresh thinking.
I also make it clear that the mentee will be the one setting the agenda and taking the actions post meeting. I expect an email following each session outlining what has been learnt, what needs to be researched, and what the next steps might be.
I also expect the mentee to be taking the actions we have agreed. If I arrive at a session and the mentee has not done the work from the previous session, it is a waste of everyone’s time.
In this way, the mentee commits to the relationship from the beginning – and learns a great deal more.
Set aside time
A tip for the mentee is to set aside a specific time in the diary to firstly reflect on the meeting, and then take the agreed actions. It’s best to write the email summarising the meeting soon after the consultation – but not immediately after. Leave a few days for the ideas to brew and percolate, but don’t leave it so long that other things take over.
Recording the meetings is a good idea, then listen back to it in your time, for example, in the car. This is also a huge tip for mentors if they wish to improve their skills.
The mentee should find time to take action. It’s so easy for work to get in the way and to delay developing areas that the mentoring may have identified. Make sure the time blocked out in your diary is non-negotiable, perhaps even just a couple of hours each week.
Also, never turn up to the next mentoring meeting without having worked on the actions from the previous meeting.
Agree a structure
There should be agreement on how the relationship will work. This will usually be a set number of sessions or perhaps a defined period.
Such discipline is important to ensure that there is real purpose to the relationship. Other parameters might be an interim catch-up phone call, and the ability for the mentee to call with a particular issue (usually the words ‘within reason’ will be added at this point).
At the very start of the process the following question should be discussed: At the end of the process, how will I know that this has been worthwhile?
The answer might involve solving a business problem, but it should also include an element of personal development. This, combined with an agreed plan of contact, should help ensure a meaningful mentoring relationship.
Having an overarching goal for the mentoring process should act like an anchor for the conversations. It’s very easy to feel like you just want someone to talk to, but without having a specific goal to aim towards, sessions become considerably less productive. Setting this goal at the very beginning is key to allowing the mentee to think and talk freely, knowing the mentor will ensure the dialogue is directed towards agreed outcomes.
Breaking down the goals
Once the overarching goal has been set, individual sessions can then plot their way towards that goal, with the mentor keeping their hand on the tiller.
Often the first session might be a discussion of what the predominant goal is going to be. A good habit is for each individual session to start with a reminder of the objective, then to set a new aim for that particular session which leads along the path – answering the question of: How will we know that we have had a successful discussion today?
Your role is to challenge and to provide feedback, in order to encourage reflection. How you do this, however, will determine whether the mentee learns from the process.
For example, asking a question is better than a statement. “Are there any other solutions?” is more productive than “I don’t agree”.
Asking for permission is also helpful. “I’d like to challenge you on that, if I may.” Be gentle.
Both mentee and mentor should approach the process as a professional relationship demanding mutual respect.
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