Friday, 11 March 2011

Do you have a mentor?

Mentoring is on my mind at the moment. I have just been invited to be guest speaker at an awards event for a national mentoring scheme, and I sometimes get asked whether I will be a mentor myself. I am also trying to help organise a mentoring programme for students at the new Academy that I chair.

I have never really had a mentor as such, not in a formal sense, and I feel I suffered from lack of a mentor at times, particularly early in my career. But I think in a way I have always had informal mentors. Individuals who I have looked up to, listened to, watched and learnt from. A nudge here. An eyebrow raised there. It all adds up to a mentoring relationship.

Personally I am not a great formal mentor. The formalised process of meeting regularly to listen and dispense advice doesn't fit with me personally and I really admire people who are able to give of themselves in this way. I would feel under such pressure in that situation to say something profound and meaningful that the responsibility would be too much. Or I would say something that sounds like common sense to me, the mentee takes it as if it was a blinding insight and then I would feel like a fake who is only inches away from being found out.

But I think I am quite a good informal mentor, if you can call it that. I am always happy to have one-off, ad hoc meetings with people, over a cup of coffee, to listen and share my experience. I try not to say what the other person "should" do (I hate "should's"). I try to give him or her another perspective to add to the various perspectives that they have already. I invite them to use whatever they find useful and cast aside the rest. If they use none of what I've said but my input helps them get clear that the choice they were going to make anyway is definitely the right one for them, then that's fine with me too.

I think the worst kind of mentor is the one who is very directional. You "should" do this. You "must" go that way. Or the mentor who pretends to be impartial and open but is actually quite manipulative and guides the mentee in the direction that they "should" go, deriving feelings of satisfaction out of their subtle skills. I have certainly encountered (and suffered at the hands of) that type of person before I woke up to what was going on.

The advice I tend to give to young people when approaching someone about being a mentor is not to start by going straight for the jugular. Finding a good mentor is like Big Game Hunting. The person you are approaching is busy (probably) and gets asked a lot to be a mentor (probably) and generally graciously declines (probably).

So you have a sales job to do - AIDA - awareness, interest, desire, action. Does your targer mentor know you exist? If you pop up from nowhere with an email and say "hi, I am no-one you have ever heard of but please mentor me" then you will be lucky if you even get a response. Target-mentor has to know you exist first.

Then, what is is about you that Target would be interested in? What have you done that's relevant to their life? Have you done anything useful for the Target, or do you just want to take from them? I operate on the 3:1 rule. I must do three useful things for you before asking you to do one useful thing for me. Is Target interested in you?

Only then start to create some desire in Target for the idea that he might want to assist you. Has Target watched your development? Does Target feel part of your journey? Are you at a stage where you could do with a bit of help and Target feels like they want to help because they have a stake in your success?

Now you can move to action. Only ever ask Target for a quick coffee, never to "be my mentor". Target hates commitment. Target likes to help. So ask for 30 mins for a coffee so that you can bounce a fe thoughts off them and get some input. Don't ask for a long term mentoring relationship. If you have a good first coffee (and by the way, in that meeting, do you do something, anything useful for Target or did you jsut take from them?) then Target might say "if you fancy catching up again at some stage, let me know". When Target says that, don't whip your diary out and schedule six more two hour sessions. Casually say "sure that would be great, I'll get in touch". Then leave it two weeks (don't be a stalker and email the same evening!) and suggest a date for a coffee in 3 months time.

Remember, you are never too old or senior to have a mentor. But the same rules apply. It is a drain on the mentor to mentor you, and they want flexibility so you take your time and build a relationship.

In fact all that talk of mentors makes me feel like I want one! Right, time to identify a Target and go hunting. I wonder if they'll spot me coming.


Lucy said...

I think we must've been separated at birth - we seem to feel the same way about mentoring!
I actually have a problem with the word itself. By using it, a power hierarchy can get defined which might get in the way, conferring a voice to only one person in the relationship. And "mentoring" like "team building" becomes false when forced. How many "team building exercises" have we been on that were in fact the opposite? And how often have we come away from doing something informal together which helps us understand each other and therefore work better together? I don't want to be a "mentor" but I love helping people to grow and be successful, not my way, but their own. Someone once called me a "gardener" in this context. I love that image! Find yourself a gardener and the "desire" part of the equation is already half way there.

Anonymous said...

Totally disagree with many of the sentiments. Maybe the article should be titled "how to cop out of mentoring".

A key element missing in business today is managers actually giving time to those below them to help them decide, act and develop. Mentoring is more than a load of soundbites and quick chats over coffee. It's about offering support and guidance to those who would benefit from it. This is worthless without the commitment to see it through. If the subject feels they have to fit in rather than be fitted in then they will fail to see that someone is actively taking an interest in them.

Apply this article to your charity work and see if it fits well? no, didn't think so. Imagine all the talented African children and think to yourself..would they develop if I gave them my phone number and met them for a quick coffee every now and then?

People who don't want to be mentors, shouldn't, those who can see the value in developing others above their own work agenda should. A rare breed, but they exist.