Learning to Lead

Friday, February 1, 2013 - 11:59

Organisations increasingly use mentoring as a component of vocational pathways for their employees. But their efforts are not always as effective as they could be, as Gerard McManus explains.

In some fields of endeavour, such as medicine, music or boxing, mentoring is a quintessential part of professional development. A young medical intern, an aspiring pugilist or a virtuoso violinist would not question the need for a constant stream of intimate one-on-one conversations or suggestions on improving procedure, technique and attitude to master their craft.

But mentoring is not simply coaching; it is actually the guiding of the mentee through the labyrinth of the all- important formative years of a profession or career.

Surgeons and ex-boxers naturally take young protégés under their wings, but for many other fields of endeavour the rules of engagement are much less defined and more difficult to manage.

In part this is because personal relationships are not transactional. The success in professional mentoring is not always immediately visible and is often determined by the actual chemistry between two individuals at different stages of their careers.

Mentoring has thus been described as a "gift relationship" whereby the mentor gives and the mentee receives. But, as with any gift-giving, there is often great satisfaction and much to learn from being the giver.

Just to make things more complex, there are also no hard-and-fast rules for mentoring: there is no curriculum, no qualifications at the end, no recommended timeframes on how long the relationship should last, and no way of measuring the success or otherwise of the exercise.

Yet for mentoring to work effectively, a defined purpose to the relationship is required and ultimately there has to be a break-up. The best mentoring relationships are friendly, but that doesn't mean the participants will be life-long friends. Mentoring relationships do not always end happily. Friction and resentment sit quietly in the background because ultimately it is the mentee who must make the calls on critical decisions such as whether to quit or accept a promotion.

If done properly and with the right people, a mentoring relationship can be life-changing. It can help launch productive careers, provide an understanding of the hidden informal networks that exist in every profession, reveal the identities and the way to identify the most and least productive and effective people and assist in the perpetuation of certain unwritten codes and folklore that exist in the workplace.

The following are eight valuable mentoring precepts that will make the exercise richer and more valuable experience for both parties:

Please pick me: Being chosen as a mentee is usually, but not exclusively, preferable to a younger person selecting his or her own mentor. A mentor who has selected their own protégé is investing their own time and experience in that person. Such an investment is usually indication of the mentor's recognition of genuine promise and sometimes of some existing personal resonance. A decision to invest in a person means there is a greater determination to make a success of the investment and therefore share in the afterglow of that success.

Showing not telling: For the mentor, it is important not just to pour forth wisdom but also to use practical examples from their own careers. This involves describing times when they had to make difficult calls and choices rather than telling the mentee what to do. Some mentors make the mistake of trying to reconstruct the errors of their own careers by micro-managing their protégé's.

Wisdom and honesty: Once a relationship is cemented, trust and honesty is essential. Some of the most important gains from mentoring can come when the mentor reveals career- changing blunders, bad decisions and even ethical lapses. But it is also just as important for both parties to suspend judgment when such errors are made or revealed. Mentoring works best if the mentor is a guide, a catalyst and a sounding board, and works worst when the mentor becomes a surrogate decision-maker.

Flexible structure: Adhoc arrangements and "phone-a-friend" crisis calls do not constitute mentoring. For truly focused mentoring it is important to put some rigour into the relationship. It is not sufficient to have a role model to call up to say: What should I do about this problem? Meetings should be regular and boundaries set but with an agenda that allows flexibility for unexpected issues.

Ground rules: Confidentiality about the conversations, respect for individual choices and setting boundaries about the areas for the conversations are important. A mentor should not be a financial adviser, relationships counsellor or psychologist. Stepping in to resolve disputes or mending personal relationships, particularly for mentors outside an organisation, are generally out of bounds.

Practical applications: A specific project, promotion application or career target is the ideal way to cement a relationship - particularly one between strangers. This focuses the pair on a specific goal and helps with bonding and commitment. Success can be enjoyed, but often an initial failure creates a stronger tie. It will also sort out quickly whether the relationship is sustainable over the short term.

Two learners, not one: Both people are learning in a mentoring relationship. Listening is an acquired skill, particularly for someone who is used to being a boss. The mentor is learning how to be a better mentor, so it is imperative for both parties if there is good feedback.

Reciprocity: Though the experience of mentoring can be enormously gratifying for the mentor, the immediate benefits are very much weighted toward the mentee. This does not mean there is any debt owed towards the mentor. Nevertheless, paying for coffee, a small gift or sincere thankyous (emphasis on plural) never goes astray.

For some mentors, the occasional acknowledgement - in front of others, where appropriate - of a career-changing intervention is reward enough. And for the mentee, the ultimate return gift is passing their knowledge on to someone else.

The process is therefore ultimately not short-term at all, but part of a virtuous cycle.

Quite an Odyssey

Throughout history, many famous people have had their confidantes, confessors and counsels - individuals upon whose shoulders they have been able to achieve great things.

Examples of mentor/mentee relationships include: Mark Antony, who had Julius Caesar as his guide; Plato, who had Socrates; a young Henry Ford, who had Thomas Edison; and Bill Gates, who has Warren Buffett.

The word itself traces back to Homeric legend.

When Ulysses left home to wage a 20-year war against the Trojans, he left his wife Penelope and son Telemachus in the hands of his friend, Mentor, who helped in the transition of Telemachus from youth to manhood, helping with difficult challenges of his young life.

But there is a spiritual aspect as well. Mentor occasionally took the form of the Greek goddess Athena, who urged Telemachus to man up and find out what happened to his father.