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How does your mentoring garden grow?


Effective mentoring means both mentor and mentee have the chance to benefit and grow, says David Pardey, as he gives his advice on how to get the most from mentoring.

The hardest bit of training is getting people to use what they've learnt. It's one thing for someone to know what they should do, it's another to be able to do it. The workplace is messy and unpredictable, full of people who don't do what the book says they will do, and full of problems that don't seem very responsive to the Six Step Problem Solving Model you've just mastered!

The same challenges arise when someone is appointed to a new job, especially when they've just come straight out of the education system. Learning the culture – how we do things around here – is often harder than learning what is supposed to happen.

Photo of David Pardey"Mentoring isn't a 'nice to have' that can be left alone to do its thing without any need to invest too much time or effort."

David Pardey, Institute of Leadership and Management

This all arises because of the difficulty of learning transfer, transferring what was learnt elsewhere into the workplace. The gap between the training room and the workplace may be short, in time and distance, but it can be a very long way when it comes to summoning up the courage to challenge well-established practices or behaviours – especially when it's yourself that you have to change.

The solution is to develop some mechanism for bridging this chasm, and one mechanism that can be really effective is mentoring – if it's done well. If it's done badly it can wipe out any of the investment that was made in training or recruiting the ideal candidate. The key to an effective mentoring programme is to build it into the training and development strategy as a core component and not as an add-on. Mentoring isn't a 'nice to have' that can be left alone to do its thing without any need to invest too much time or effort. An ineffective mentoring programme can be positively harmful, raising expectations and dashing them, undoing good work that preceded it and having a negative impact on performance. So, what needs to be done to make sure mentoring works, and adds real value to your training?

Be clear what mentoring is – and what it isn't

One simple definition of mentoring is that it is "Help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge, work or thinking". (Clutterbuck & Meggerison, Mentoring Executives & Directors. 1991: Butterworth-Heinemann). It's not on-the-job training, nor is it another name for coaching, although the two are closely related. What makes mentoring different is its emphasis on drawing on the experiences of the mentor in helping the person being mentored.

Mentoring is about guiding people to make decisions – it's not about making decisions for them. Rather than advising people what to do, mentors reflect on their own experiences and feelings and use questioning to help others decide the right course for them. If the mentor says 'do this' then the person being mentored has no responsibility, and no opportunity to learn.

Reflection means that mentors can use their own experiences and feelings to highlight how they have dealt with similar or equivalent situations in the past, and what happened as a result of their actions. This sharing of experience means that the person being mentored is able to draw on their experiences in making decisions. Questioning means that they can guide someone's thoughts, encouraging them to consider all the possibilities and not make hasty decisions. By questioning they encourage the person to think; 'advising' means that the mentor is doing the thinking.

"An ineffective mentoring programme can be positively harmful, raising expectations and dashing them, undoing good work that preceded it and having a negative impact on performance."

Being an effective mentor

To be effective, a mentor should aim to follow some clear principles and practices:

  • Mentors should aim to build mutual trust. This means being aware that the person being mentored may not share their own values and assumptions (about what is right or important) or their own biases and preferences. Mentors should recognise what these are and not let them dominate the mentoring relationship. Instead, they look for what they both have in common, such as work and leisure interests, opinions and feelings, whilst recognising and acknowledging any differences.
  • Mentors should focus on communicating effectively, paying particular attention to language and the meaning of words. They should also observe non-verbal signals suggesting how the person feels about a topic. They need to learn about the world of the person being mentored so that they can make sense of what he or she is saying (or implying).
  • Mentors should encourage the person being mentored to explore all possibilities and the consequences of alternative decisions. They shouldn't let people rush into decisions, but help them to develop a reflective approach. A key aspect of the mentor's role is being able to draw on his or her own experience and knowledge to guide others. At the same time, it's not possible to make the right choices all the time, so they need to recognise that people make mistakes, and that through these mistakes they can learn and develop themselves. If a mentor disagrees with a choice, they should say so, but acknowledge that the other person has to make the decision that they feel is right.
  • Mentors should use their own personal networks to identify other sources of help. They don't have to know all the answers but may know where answers can be found. A mentor should generally be more experienced than the person being mentored (which doesn't necessarily mean being older) but that doesn't mean that they must know everything. That's not possible. They should recognise where they lack knowledge or experience and draw on their personal contacts (and their contacts' contacts) to fill the gaps.
  • To do all this well needs proper training, and the systems to ensure that mentoring is happening and monitoring to check that it is being effective. Most important of all, being a mentor should be seen as a recognition of expertise and a significant CPD activity for the mentor, as well as being of benefit to the person being mentored.

    Mentoring is generally a medium-term solution to a person's need for support. That means a mentor is going to be doing it for several weeks, at least, probably several months, but not for much more than a year or so at most. A mentor's goal should be to help someone become independent, not to encourage dependence. They should also look for opportunities to learn and develop themselves, through their reflections on their own knowledge and experience and through discussion of other people's challenges.

    David Pardey is senior manager, policy & research at the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM).


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