We all need a good mentor, and not just in the workplace.
We’re in a time when most of us exist within the echo-chambers of social media. A time where we will always find somebody somewhere that will share our point of view. As a result of this plethora of answers to every question, we are frequently left paralysed by indecision.
We’re in a time where affirmation and support is predominantly manifested by a single ‘click’, demonstrating ‘like’ or ‘love’. A time when we are so busy commuting, working, rushing, that sitting down to have a quality discussion with a good friend happens less and less. We’re in a time when an increasing number of people suffer from mental health issues and, despite increased online interconnectedness, feel isolated or lonely. In this time, we need mentoring more than ever.
And yet, mentoring is something of a lost art or it is something we associate only with school or the workplace. Many mentoring initiatives, guidance or projects involve working with young people or ‘less experienced’ colleagues. Mentoring is something we also associate with counselling, therapy or paid ‘help’ of some kind at a time of crisis.
My position is that mentoring is something that needs to be rejuvenated and reinterpreted for the current world. I do not necessarily think internal mentoring within a workplace for example is always effective as it might be, given the existence of work-related competition
and job insecurity. Neither do I think mentoring is something that is necessarily exclusively about mentoring younger or less senior people – mentoring relationships can sometimes work well where the mentor is 25 and the mentee 75 – up or reverse mentoring as it is sometimes called! Finally, my argument is that in the UK we need to become a bit braver about seeking out and offering ourselves up as mentors.
In an ideal world, everyone would be a mentor to someone and a mentee of someone else.
WHAT IS MENTORING?
Mentoring is different from a good friendship or a good collegial-work relationship – although a friend or work colleague could be your mentor. Being a mentor is when you put your own wants, needs, values to one side, as far as possible, and dedicate yourself to listening to and helping someone else. Mentoring skills can be developed with experience and training. A good mentor is always appreciated.
Take 30 seconds to think about someone in your life who has been a mentor to you. It might have been at a time of change in your life – maybe a time where you needed support working out which direction to take or negotiating a work or personal decision.
Think about that relationship. Think about one moment when you two had a conversation (it might have been in person or via text or email), what was it that that person did or said that helped you?
Mentoring is a careful balance of listening, asking the right questions and offering carefully-considered advice. We may need different mentors for different issues, but a skilled, holistic mentor should be able to help a mentee in a number of different ways because they become well-acquainted with a mentee’s core values. I personally believe that when picking a mentor, we need to think about someone we respect and admire, someone who cannot possibly benefit in even the smallest way from our failure (despite all good intentions), and someone that might be prepared to give you time (and it may only be a small amount of their time).
Educational or academy mentoring relationships often work particularly well because a teacher genuinely wants the student to succeed and will invest much time and energy into the mentor-mentee relationship. Academic achievement, career opportunities and academic self-image can be enhanced by successful teacher-student mentoring. But that teacher also needs to receive mentoring her or himself – preferably someone outside of their department, who has no responsibility for their performance-management and who has no chance of competing with them for a position in the future.
It is helpful to identify three different ways of understanding mentoring:
Specific institutional or age/experience-related mentoring: workplace, academy, inter-generational (traditionally ‘youth’ mentoring, but there are also older generational mentoring programmes now, for example where younger mentors mentee older people in digital technology).
Mentoring with a twist of teaching: mentoring of those more knowledgeable of a field with those that are less so, not necessarily in the school or the workplace, but something you might find in community or organic projects like the University of the Third Age.
Everyday mentoring for everyone: mentoring outside of workplace, academy or scheme (the focus of this article).
Much research and writing exists on workplace, academy (or educational) mentoring and the mentoring of young people (sometimes where young people are somehow perceived as ‘vulnerable’ or in need, and where an older adult is a ‘role-model’ of sorts or where a student is seen as a ‘protégé’). Less writing is available on community and everyday mentoring.
In the Blackwell Handbook on Mentoring (2011), mentoring is given five key features:
Mentoring relationships are unique – no two mentoring relationships are the same
Mentoring is a learning partnership
Mentoring is a process that is often emotional or psychosocial and instrumental or career-related
The mentoring relationship is reciprocal, yet asymmetrical (both benefit but the focus of the benefit is the mentee)
Mentoring relationships are dynamic and change over time.
WHY MENTORING and WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN?
Indeed, research (from the work of Levinson onwards) highlights the important role relationships play in human development, specifically the relationship with a mentor and especially through times of transition. Research in the '70s and '80s showed that people we perceive to be successful or high achieving in society had significant mentors in their lives, especially when they were young. On top of a growing body of scholarly research, many of us are aware at least anecdotally of the importance that mentoring in that it can provide the supportive space we all need to work through a whole host of things, provide clarity and help us move forward.
There is no one way of mentoring, but there are some patterns in a mentoring journey that have been written about by experts and trainers (there is a lot of overlap with the idea of coaching, but my feeling is that with coaching the ‘coach’ has their own particular goal in mind for that person as well and this is not the case for mentoring). I think that good practice in mentoring can be over-theorised. Obviously guidance is useful and I do believe we can all benefit from some form of ‘mentoring education’, especially about how to ask the right sort of questions and the balance between listening and offering advice. However, my experience is that all mentoring relationships are unique and grow and change organically depending upon the personalities involved.
In return, being a good mentee involves being honest and trusting. Being a good mentee will also require you to be open to the idea of hearing another person’s take on you, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your skills and your knowledge. This is not always an easy process.
On the surface it might be more immediately obvious what the benefits are for the mentee rather than the mentor in a mentoring relationship, but dig a little deeper and we can soon discover the mutual benefits. A productive mentor-mentee relationship will feel exactly that, productive, useful and energising – when it stops feeling so, it is arguably time to change the mentoring relationship.
SO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
We need to be braver about asking someone to be our mentor – maybe on a trial basis at first! Some of us Brits are notorious for our inability to ask for help, but if we repackage this as both ‘an asking for help’ and ‘an offering of help’maybe more will warm to the idea.
Of course this is not a straight forward reciprocity. Whilst some mentor-mentee relationships might be able to be reciprocal, I contend that the majority need to be one-sided – details of my reasoning would require an additional article, but in short I maintain that mentor-relationships are stronger when the mentee is less aware of the complexities of the mentor’s head and life, and is focused on developing and progressing the self.
Mentoring needs to take place in a safe space, a space where the mentee feels confident enough to be entirely honest and open. Mutual trust and respect are essential.
So how do we find our mentors? As the idea of everyday mentoring spreads and becomes more normalised, which I hope it will, people will be better prepared for receiving and asking the question. Rest assured, people are flattered to ask and, if they really feel they don’t have the time or skills, they may be able to suggest someone else for you.
To become a good mentor, we need to also know what it’s like to be well-mentored – a staple ingredient of any counselling or therapist training. Let's get mentoring...