Learning from the wisdom of others

Thursday, April 23, 2015 - 15:42

Guest post by AIM faculty Jan Burnes

When you were young and searching for the meaning of life, can you recall someone, maybe a grandparent or a teacher; someone older, patient, and wise, who understood you and helped you see the world as a more profound place and gave you sound advice to help you make your way through it.

Maybe, like me, you lost track of your Mentor as you made your way, the insights faded and the world seemed harsher. Wouldn’t you like to see that person again, ask the bigger questions that still haunt you, receive wisdom for your busy life today the way you once did when you were younger?

The origins of “Mentoring” come from the ancient Greeks. When Odysseys, King of Ithaca, went to fight the Trojan Wars, he entrusted the care of his son, Telemachus, to his friend, Mentor. In time, the word Mentor became synonymous with a trusted friend, teacher or wise person.

History offers many examples of helpful mentoring relationships: Socrates and Plato, Hayden and Beethoven, Freud and Yung, and more latterly Robert Menzies and Malcolm Fraser, Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, Mark O’Meara and Tiger Woods, and Professor Dumbledore and Harry Potter! Legend and history record deeds of these famous people but each of us has a birthright to be all that we can be. Mentors are those special people in our lives, who, through their deeds and work, help us to move toward fulfilling our potential.

Mentoring in the Workplace

My first workplace mentor was also my boss; it came naturally to him as part of his management style. We never discussed mentoring and it’s only with hindsight that I realise that this is what occurred.

This manager challenged me – gave me assignments that stretched me. He coached me, led by example and demonstrated ways of doing things. When I brought a problem to him he would listen attentively, ask some astute questions, then utter the most powerful words a protégé will ever hear: “...and what do you think we should do about this?”

I quickly learned not to bring him the problem without also offering a potential solution. Over the three years that I worked with Colin, I learned and grew. The knowledge, skills and attitudes that I gained, built my competence and confidence.

Mentoring is not about creating dependency – it’s about encouraging the protégé to become independent. Develop their latent abilities, spread their wings – fly!

Mentoring, in one form or another, happens in almost every work environment. These relationships are often informal, with the protégé selecting their own ‘guru’; approaching them when guidance is needed.

A formal or structured mentoring program however, assists the organisation to change and achieve it’s objectives in a positive and nurturing environment. Staff morale improves, productivity increases and quality standards are raised.

Experienced staff are the most valuable asset an organisation has. When these people mentor new or junior employees, there is an imparting of knowledge, skills and information which could otherwise take years for the protégé to acquire.

Young staff often feel isolated from senior management, creating a ‘them and us’ culture. The Mentor can provide a valuable conduit to the upper echelons of your organisation giving the protégé a real feeling of belonging; being a part of the overall picture.

Key Success Factors

The success of a formal mentoring program depends on the commitment shown by everyone involved to meet the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities of mentoring. The first step is to develop a clear statement of program objectives against which progress may be monitored and measured.

Selecting the right people to become mentors is of prime importance – not everyone is suited to the role or will want to participate. A selection criteria needs to be developed, outlining the skills and attributes required in the mentors. This criteria should be based on the culture of the organisation and the objectives to be achieved.

The selection of protégés should be made on solid track record rather than a prospective protégé’s ability to present themselves well at a one-off interview.  Merrill Lynch developed an application form for protégés where they had to state why they thought they were suitable candidates, what benefits and skills they wished to obtain and what kind of self- development activities they have pursued in the last year.

Training for both the mentors and the protégés should be provided to ensure they fully understand their role and responsibilities, the benefits of the program, how to develop goals and milestones, and how to establish and maintain a professional, friendly relationship. An awareness of some of the problems that could arise and how to avoid them is also essential to the success of the program.

Mentoring programs can be short term or long term. A brief ‘meeting of the minds’ or last for years until the protégé finally outgrows their mentor. There is no hard and fast formula but experience has shown that a one-year program appears to be the minimum to produce measurable outcomes. The rewards can be great for everyone involved. Happy Mentoring!

A former Telstra Business Woman of the Year and owner of a business employing over 1,000 people, Jan Burnes, MBA, has fifteen years experience helping organisations achieve their objectives through structured mentoring and coaching programs.

AIM offers its own mentoring for AIM Members. For more information on how you can receive guidance as a mentee or share your experience and knowledge as a mentor please visit www.aim.com.au/mentoring