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Julia Wilkinson

OnTrack International

Principal Consultant

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Five golden rules for effective mentoring


Mentoring schemes are increasing in popularity, with that in mind Julia Wilkinson highlights the need for a more structured process to match the right people together.

The idea of using a wooden horse to break the siege of Troy reputedly came from Odysseus, king of the Greeks and hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey.

Before leaving for the Trojan War, Odysseus asked a loyal friend to guide, teach and look after his son. That friend was Mentor - and his name has since become synonymous with a wise and trusted advisor who helps a less experienced protégé to learn, develop and grow.

The growth of mentoring schemes

Mentoring schemes have subsequently been introduced in many organisations to support formal graduate development and talent management programmes and to informally develop first-line managers and high flyers.

Subject matter experts who lack emotional intelligence can also be mentored to help them communicate, influence and empathise with others.

Mentees can confide in their mentor and gain ‘in the moment’ advice.

Mentoring even extends to CEOs and senior managers. However their mentors will usually be outside of the organisation, whereas a typical internal mentor is someone with relevant knowledge and experience, who is at least two grades further up the hierarchy than their mentee.

The advantages of mentoring

The great advantage of mentoring is that it offers something very different from traditional learning. It can result in new thinking, broader awareness, enhanced self confidence, skills development, focused improvement and access to a wider network.

A mentor can share experience and tacit knowledge - for example about the internal running of an organisation - that cannot be gained from any other source.

Mentees can confide in their mentor and gain ‘in the moment’ advice on live problems or real concerns.

Importantly, a mentor should neither become a new line manager nor ‘tell’ the mentee what to do.

These benefits can be invaluable for mentees and they can have a correspondingly positive impact on the business. Yet too often mentoring falls flat; employers fail to fully achieve these benefits.

This is primarily because they don’t follow five golden rules.

The secrets of effective mentoring:

1. Choose the right mentors

Problems will arise if the wrong people are chosen or if a mentor lacks sufficient time to devote to their mentees.

An effective mentor is someone who can challenge and support a mentee and not judge them.

If they’re from a different department or function, they can be more objective.

Ideally they’ll be adept at the ‘seven Cs’ of mentoring: they should be able to coach the mentee; be a confidante; provide career advice; act as a conduit to others, to increase the mentee’s visibility; serve as a counsellor; be a critical friend and provide the mentee with choice.

Importantly, a mentor should neither become a new line manager nor ‘tell’ the mentee what to do.

Their role is to ask good questions, to listen, to challenge their mentee’s thinking, to clarify and support their short-term goals and longer-term aspirations, to play Devil’s advocate and to encourage their development.

All of this demands a high level of self awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, interpersonal skills and self control.

And the mentor has to be willing to commit the time needed to build and maintain a productive relationship.

Needless to say, not everyone will have these attributes and qualities, so not every manager is cut out to be a mentor.

Choosing the right people is therefore a significant challenge. Your choice shouldn’t be restricted to who’s available or who’s done it before.

2. Make it appealing

Despite the time and effort involved, effective mentoring can be highly rewarding for mentors as well as beneficial for mentees. For some, it can provide a welcome new challenge.

The sense of satisfaction from helping others to develop - and sharing in their successes - can be a powerful motivator, particularly if mentors are positioned as esteemed individuals who are passing on knowledge within the organisation.

Also, asking pertinent questions to others encourages you to ask similar questions of yourself.

The mentor has to be willing to commit the time needed to build and maintain a productive relationship.

Many mentors say their own practice improves through mentoring and that they benefit from the fresh perspectives of their mentees and the enthusiasm they encounter.

These aspects should be widely promoted in organisations, so that managers understand that being a mentor is a privileged role and that they’ll benefit personally from mentoring others.

3. Make it voluntary

In some organisations, all managers at a certain level are expected to become mentors. But if you force the role upon people, they might do it reluctantly. This can be disastrous, as mentees can think their mentor doesn’t care about them.

The best approach is to ask managers to volunteer to become a mentor. Those who come forward will often have many of the qualities required for success.

4. Provide training

Employers should provide core training for both mentors and mentees. This helps to set the right expectations for both parties and address any concerns on either side.

The training should include advice and guidance about the role of a mentor (and a mentee), the models and techniques involved, where the boundaries lie and how the meetings and conversations should be structured.

The mentee needs to have absolute faith in the confidentiality of the process.

Potential mentors may need coaching to help them develop or sharpen the skills and attributes they need to succeed.

5. Match the right mentor to the right mentee

When you have a pool of mentors and mentees, HR practitioners can intervene to put the right people together.

Personality, motivation and values questionnaires can help to pair people, as can recommendations from line managers. Certain mentees may want specific support, or they may have an interest in a particular department.

All of these factors can play a part in the matching process.

The mentee needs to have absolute faith in the confidentiality of the process.

However, great care is needed here. A mentor who has been through a similar experience to a mentee may offer a certain perspective.

But, equally, someone with a very different experience may be able to challenge the mentee’s thinking in a new way.

The best approach is to match people as well as you can - then let them have lunch, see if they’re comfortable with each other and let them agree how they’ll work together.

However, it’s important to offer each party a ‘way out’. So if the relationship isn’t working, for whatever reason, either side can end it without recrimination.

Don’t be afraid to offer people more than one mentor.

Forcing people to remain in mentoring relationships where there’s no chemistry will be utterly unproductive.

Finally, don’t be afraid to offer people more than one mentor.

Your mentees may have different requirements and your mentors will certainly have different strengths. A mentee could therefore have informal relationships with different advisors for different issues.

Mentoring doesn’t have to be a one-time, all-or-nothing experience.

These five rules can help you to gain real value from your mentoring relationships and they’ll greatly benefit your mentees, your mentors and the wider business.

One Response

  1. Hi Julia – all good points,
    Hi Julia – all good points, thank you. Aside from pt.1 of course, making it appealing is so true: so many mentors really do not see the benefits for them and the old marketing phrase of ‘sell the benefits not the features’ of the mentoring product is often missed by HR professionals. And for me, pt.5 – matching – is crucial and again, in my experience, rushed. Such a shame to ruin the programme by not taking time at this vital stage.

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Julia Wilkinson

Principal Consultant

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