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Nigel Paine

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Building a mentoring culture


With mentoring seemingly undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, Nigel Paine discusses the dos and don'ts of implementing a mentoring programme.

I have been asked to talk about mentoring five times in the last few weeks and maybe once or twice in the previous six months. It seems to be a bit ‘trendy’ now and, as a bit of an L&D fashionista, is on to it already!

So what do I say when someone says that they want to implement a mentoring programme? Well the first and most obvious question is, ‘for whom?’ ‘Anyone who wants it’, or ‘everyone’ are not good answers. And once you work out the 'for whom', you will begin to determine the shape and nature of the programme. All mentoring programmes are not identical. What works for new employees during the first six months of employment, is not the same as a programme for transitioning executives or departmental managers.
And you might not want to call them the same thing either. A mentoring programme could be called ‘buddy scheme’ or an ‘executive challenge‘ but they conjure up vastly different images even if their contents are similar. What works for your specific circumstance? What gives the right impression? What will make people want to participate? The term ‘mentoring’ can sound a bit dull, worthy or even remedial. That is not the impression that you what to convey.
Mentoring has two sides: those that mentor and those that are mentored. If you launch with a fanfare and find that there are ten mentees for every mentor you will get egg all over your face. My recommendation is to start with the mentors. See who will do it and make sure they know what being a mentor entails. Never assume that because someone is very enthusiastic about the role, that they are clear what being a mentor actually means. And often the best way to clarify this is to write it down.  Not into a complex handbook, but as bullet point guidance with a few case studies. Please draw lines, very firm lines around what is acceptable and what strays into the unacceptable. Mentoring is not amateur psychotherapy, nor marriage guidance nor financial advice. It is about work and helping someone acclimatise faster or make an impact faster. It is the passing on of wisdom and insight to someone with less experience. It is not telling someone what to do, or worse, ordering someone to do something or to behave in a particular way.
"A mentor, in a good programme, will tell you that he or she gets as much from the sessions as the mentee. For a senior or even a middle managers to see their organisation though the eyes of a more junior member of staff is invaluable."
A mentoring culture is where everyone above a certain level is expected to mentor; almost as if it were part of the job description. An organisation with a mentoring programme in place is one where sufficient people are willing to mentor to meet the demand by mentees. These two types of organisations should not be confused: the latter can merge into the former but it takes time and a commitment from the top. It is quite possible to run a specific mentoring programme, for a particular target group, very successfully without expecting or demanding widespread buy-in. I have seen great programmes run for years with only a nod from the CEO. But they work and can be transformational for the individuals involved.
A mentoring approach that assumes that the process is a one-way street is also destined to fail. A mentor, in a good programme, will tell you that he or she gets as much from the sessions as the mentee. For a senior or even a middle managers to see their organisation though the eyes of a more junior member of staff is invaluable. It is like a regular reality check, as well as a dispassionate view from the front line.
Mentors need support! They need regular debriefing both individually, to fine tune their work, but in a group, too, so that they can share (without giving away confidential information) war stories and successes. The guidebook will probably need tweaking after every one of these sessions, as theory adapts to reality.
Mentees also need to debrief about the value of the experience and what lessons they have learned. And there has to be a warning bell reminding someone to take action if the process is clearly not working. Not every pairing can work and, in those instances, remedial action is necessary fast. I know schemes where the mentor manager phones every single mentee once a month to ensure that the process is working well.
And, I guess, I have just slipped in my final piece of advice. Every scheme needs a manager to oversee it. This need not be full time but it does need commitment. Schemes will never run themselves, even if the process between mentor and mentee should be self-renewing. The framework and the practicalities of the scheme should be reviewed regularly.
So what are the benefits of a good programme? There are three major ones: communication across the organisation; staff performing at a higher level; a system that is quick to spot and quick to solve issues and problems and presents this as part of the organisational culture. 
These are all valuable in a 21st Century company; but maybe the reason that mentoring is increasing in popularity is that the pace of change is accelerating and this is a great way of helping people cope.

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