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Mentoring: The professional’s pilgrimage


Mentoring can mean different things to different people, here Mark Walsh tells us of his own personal journey.

People learn from people. People learn particularly well from people who have trodden a path before them. You can learn about something from Wikipedia, but to learn to do something of value you must have a teacher, or even better a mentor. Mentoring is one of the oldest forms of human learning (predating formal teaching and certainly coaching). For millions of years people learnt the essential skills of life from generation to generation by being shown, imitating and receiving feedback.
I first came across mentoring not in the management training world where I earn my living today, but in a much gentler field – that of the Japanese martial arts. I jest of course. The martial arts are an intense pursuit where mentors can be severe. The images of martial arts films are not far from the truth and there is no question that to learn a martial art one must have not only a teacher, but a close, almost familial, relationship with one.
I was extremely lucky to be taken in by William Smith Sensei OBE in whose dojo (school) I lived on and off for some years. Smith Sensei was a traditionally English, demanding yet very caring mentor who taught me some aikido, but more importantly, modelled what it is to be a good man. I think of his example when considering how best to orientate around family or work - issues, which on the surface, have nothing to do with martial arts. This is the hidden beauty of mentoring. Note that Sensei is a Japanese word for teacher that literally means “one who has gone before” and this is perhaps the essence of mentoring.
In Europe the Craft Guild system also operated through mentors and a long-term personal relationship of mutual dedication was expected. I believe that a true mentor relationship may in fact be life-long. It is not a weekend with Business Link!
So what happened?
Learning itself has become more mechanised and mass-produced in the Western World with attempts made to remove the human relational elements. I believe this is a great shame, but I am glad to see mentoring re-emerging and gaining increasing recognition and popularity in organisations today. In one sense mentoring never went away - people will always mentor other people. The question for me then becomes how do we mentor skilfully?
Mentoring is not domain specific... and it is
While Mr Smith taught me much about life, when I decided to learn about organisational life and business training I looked for new teachers. I found two great mentors in the field of training that I specialise in (the embodied approach) - Richard Strozzi Heckler and Paul Linden. I’m also proud to call Professor Donald Levine – founder of the charity where I delivered training before starting my own company – a true mentor.
I sought them out and started long-term relationships with them that continue to this day. Like any skill that requires depth of learning, the Embodied Management Training approach needs to be passed on personally and I believe that mentoring is essential to leadership and organisational development. I strongly believe that I would not be running my own business now, Integration Training, and advising business leaders if it were not for their mentoring support.
You need not become your mentors
I am different from my mentors in many ways - I am not a staunch royalist like Mr Smith or an American like Strozzi-Heckler, Levine and Linden. There are personal, cultural and generational factors at work that I do not wish to impersonate. All have different personalities, skills and client groups, yet all have been an inspiration and I am beyond grateful to them.
We are all mentors - it works both ways
You become a mentor when you gain a skill or interact with people who are looking for your support - like it or not. I realised this early in my business life when people started asking my advice. My first response was “I don’t know, why are you asking me?”
But often one cannot decline mentorship so easily – we are all mentors. I also learnt that while being a sempai (Japanese for senior) had its advantages over being a kohai (junior), the responsibility worked both ways. An aikido mentor cooked for me several times when I had run out of food as a poor student and I now have the responsibilities and worries looking after those that I mentor.
In Ethiopia I also mentored two young teachers at an HIV awareness circus and youth campus. One eventually let the campus down in a big way, and the other has gone from strength to strength winning international recognition for his work and growing as a person in a way which I am deeply proud of. The role of mentor hasn’t always smooth sailing, but I still feel intimately connected to both.
Mentoring in the modern world
While I have trained in some traditional arts I am not a reactionary. Mentoring is now no longer always generational. Due to the speed of innovation and the spread of ideas globally, younger people are now likely to possess skills and experience which older people may not.
I often find myself mentoring older people about the embodied approaches to leadership that I have pioneered in the UK. I am also a student myself of many younger people who are better skilled in new media and technology.
I appreciate that some of the structures around traditional mentorship are hard to replicate, such as the live-in system used in traditional martial arts, but luckily, modern technologies may support intimate mentoring across distance if used correctly. My promise to one of my mentors in embodied training after a period of phone coaching (which he gave for free) was that I would pay his kindness back by passing it on to others. I invite you to do the same.
Have you been mentored? We would love to hear your personal experience so please do leave your comments below.
Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer in the 'embodied' approach to management and leadership training. Based in Brighton he heads Integration Training - Business Training Providers specialising in leadership, team building, stress management and time management training. Contact Mark on 07762 541 855 or visit his management training blog.

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