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Making coaching and mentoring work for everyone

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Any L&D teams worth their salt should be bringing mentoring into the learning mix, says John Castledine.

 

If you believe the key to engaged and motivated employees is helping them to feel in control of their short and long-term career aims, it isn't difficult to see why peer coaching and mentoring has become a key part of the learning and development (L&D) mix. In the era of empowerment, its consultative and explorative approach has helped many individuals fulfill their potential and feel a sense of ownership towards their personal and professional development that traditional training methods struggle to instill.
Mentoring relies on a more informal dynamic between than many other forms of L&D. To impose too many constraints and controls on it is to quell and stifle its own potential. Putting in place a successful corporate peer mentoring scheme, however, also relies on a degree of formality and agreement behind-the-scenes. Finding this balance represents the biggest challenge to L&D professionals.
As a long term advocate of mentoring and a career L&D professional I believe these are the key success points to address when setting up a corporate mentoring system.

Know the rules of engagement

Firstly, the person driving the mentoring scheme must ensure there is total clarity around both the purpose of the mentoring and how it will work practically. In short, everyone needs to be on the same page as far as the rules of the game are concerned and know what is expected of them.
One of the most important areas to address at the outset is the time demands of the programme. The mentor must be sure that they can donate sufficient time to the programme and the person being mentored must be made aware that, although assigned to them, they cannot be constantly on hand. If the colleague being mentored is too needy and the mentor feels swamped by them, the relationship will quickly break down. So there must be some formal agreement on when and where the mentoring sessions will take place and and how regular the discussions will be. 
Know where the balance of power lies.
Mentoring schemes are largely voluntary so their success depends on individuals taking responsibility for their own development and being explicit about what they want to get out of the relationship. If using an external coach, it is easier for them to call the shots as they know the company is paying for the service. If the mentor comes from within the organisation, however, it is likely they are more senior to the individual being mentored, who may end up deferring to them because of this status gap. This is unlikely to result in a healthy and productive mentoring relationship so, once again, the person behind the scheme must make sure that everyone understands their role in the relationship.
They must also ensure that there is clarity over areas such as confidentiality and organisational responsibility. If someone brings up the subject of bullying or harassment, for instance, the mentor must be clear on how they deal with that information. Clearly it can't be ignored but the individual is likely to have imparted it in confidence, perhaps reluctantly for fear of reprisals. Peer mentoring is particularly susceptible to grey areas like this and the only way difficult situations can be avoided is to ensure total transparency at the outset. Make sure both parties understand what can be said in confidence and when this rule of confidentiality should be broken and an issue raised with HR.

Training for the trainer

While the mentored colleague on the receiving end of advice and information, it must be a two-way relationship. They, and those that follow them into similar relationships, will benefit by giving the mentor good feedback and helping them to grow in the role. While largely chosen for their experience and track record within the organisation, there is a case for providing would-be mentors with specialist training to get the maximum benefit from a mentoring scheme.
The whole premise of coaching and mentoring is that the person being coached or mentored is taken on a journey of self-exploration and enlightenment and this demands certain skills. Some form of recognized quality mark, such as a qualification in this area, will help to build credibility and accelerate the effect and impact of the mentoring.
Those that institute a successful mentoring scheme often report that it becomes self-propagating and a momentum and appetite for it can quickly grow within the organisation. One of the reasons for this is not just that those on the receiving end feel they are gaining something but it also expands the role and skill set of those doing the mentoring. Motivation and engagement increases at all levels and everyone benefits.

Control points maintain an informal dynamic

Clearly, organisations have much to gain from a mentoring culture that is allowed to grow organically but L&D professionals must ensure certain controls are in place if pitfalls are to be avoided. So their challenge is to ensure they preserve the informal dynamic which gives mentoring such potential while introducing some formality that runs in the background to ensure it stays on track.

John Castledine is the director of learning solutions, Institute of Leadership & Management. Read his other feature 'On the record' here.

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