Reflections on Mentoring Through CO3
As it is the start of Spring and a time to reassess personal targets and priorities I have decided to take a step back from the CO3 mentoring programme after a run of about seven years. In doing so I thought that a few personal reflections on the experience might help potential mentors and anyone who is considering applying to the scheme as a mentee.
CO3 was clearly ahead of its time when it devised the scheme. Now you cannot open a management journal without seeing an article on mentoring and there is almost a social disgrace in not having a personal mentor – a bit like Woody Allen and his self-confessed reliance on his therapist ! Mentoring is almost universally seen as ‘a good thing ‘ and a sign of strength and self-knowledge in the manager who recognises the need for this form of support .
It wasn’t always so. I remember some of the issues raised when the scheme was first proposed. Would my employer think less of me for suggesting a mentor? Would it cut across line management arrangements? Would it cause problems of confidentiality for organisations? Would intellectual capital or best practice be poached by someone operating from outside the organisation? In my experience none of the initial concerns were ever realised.
So what has worked well for me? What didn’t work so well and what advice would I pass on to both mentors and mentees? Let me share a few thoughts on the back of a some questions:-
Why do you think that you would benefit from a mentor?
I am sure that all mentors put huge value on the importance of the first meeting. It quickly becomes clear whether or not a potential mentee has their heart in the process and is genuinely committed to it. It can be a bit dispiriting to ask the ask the question, ‘’ what do you hope to get out of the process ? ‘’ to be met with a blank gaze or even worse ‘I thought you would tell me that ?”
Where things have got off to a great start is when the answer is along the lines of, ‘’ there are a number of specific issues I want to open up and discuss but also some broader themes about where I am at and where I am going ‘’. That is music to a mentor’s ears! Don’t succumb to the idea that it would just be a novel idea to have a mentor but be very clear, especially to yourself, what you hope to gain. Most mentees are looking for change of some sort so see it as a personal change management tool. What is it that you want to change and why? That will get you both off to a great start.
It is also useful to be clear about the difference between mentoring, coaching and counselling. I have been asked to mentor people who really needed a skill session on something like Chairing meetings or dealing with difficult members of staff. At other times family relationships have been raised which would have been better addressed by a relationship counsellor. Mentoring is more of a personal development and empowering tool which should help the mentee think more broadly about the presentation of themselves in the workplace and their career path and direction. It also helps the mentee to believe in him or herself.
What makes a good mentor?
- an essential skill is that of listening . Here the three types of listening come into play. Informational listening [ listening to learn ] , Critical listening [ listening to evaluate and analyse ] , and Therapeutic or Empathetic listening [ listening to understand feeling and emotion ] .
- using your own personal experiences without beginning everything with ‘’ Did I tell you about the time I .... ‘’
- Being totally on the side of the mentee. I never have any conflict of interest between the mentee and their organisation [ even if they are paying me ]. As far as I am concerned I am there just for the mentee. I am on their side and I will try to support them through whatever difficulties they are experiencing.
- Being a good resource. This might mean lending books on specific areas, pointing them in the direction of specialist help or introducing them to your own helpful contacts. I often suggest that a mentee attends workshops or conferences on specific areas we have been discussing.
- knowing when to be quiet . Two female mentees separately said, ‘’ Bill I just need you to listen and not try to find a solution. That is such a male thing! ‘’ I took that to heart and now either bite my tongue or ask if some thoughts on a way forward would be helpful.
- Avoiding clichés. I cringe when I hear others say, ‘’ I hear what you are saying ‘’ or ‘’ I feel your pain ‘’. Good mentoring is much more spontaneous than that. Sometimes I just think aloud and the mentee joins in with ‘’yes but if I did that... ‘’ It’s a great way to bring two perspectives together and to tease out what might or might not work.
- Seeing the mentee as a person in the round not a Director of.... , or CEO of... This approach often brings out the personal skills and attributes which they apply naturally in the workplace. I always like to think of the person outside their current role which can lead to some interesting discussions about career plans and career direction. Sadly I have worked with a few individuals who are clearly in a horrible job working with some pretty horrible people. There is little point in pretending that a few mentoring sessions will make everything better. It may seem harsh but I have had more than a few conversations along the lines of getting out while you still can and putting this behind you.
Where to meet for mentoring sessions?
The perceived wisdom on this seems to suggest somewhere neutral such as a cafe or hotel lobby. I have changed my view on this. I have had too many experiences of noisy public venues or emotional discussions held under the gaze of waiters and receptionists. In one instance the mentee and I settled down in a deserted Ulster Museum cafe to be surrounded fifteen minutes later by a group of twenty noisy adults on a museum tour all talking loudly about the exhibition they had just seen!
I am now in favour of meeting in the mentees place of work unless there is a particular reason not to do so. Besides being private it gives me a chance to see the front face of the organisation and to meet one or two members of staff. It also seems more professional. Of course there needs to be an agreement about phone calls and interruptions.
Does distance mentoring work ?
Last year I was commissioned to mentor a newly appointed CEO based in Brussels. We got on extremely well despite the language difference but mentoring via Skype was not easy. Technology seemed to thwart most sessions but most importantly it was impossible to read each other’s body language and although the mentee insisted that the sessions were very helpful I often felt very dissatisfied with the meetings.
This is not to say that face to face mentoring shouldn’t be supplemented with email and telephone contact which I now do with all of my contacts. It is often useful to send an email after a session summarising the key points and reflecting on some of the areas discussed.
What if the mentor / mentee match isn’t working?
I know that CO3 make great efforts to make a good match between the mentee and mentor but I have had one or two occasions when it is clear that the mentee is unhappy. I would have much preferred an honest discussion around that rather than a string of cancelled appointments or missed meetings. I do think that the onus is on the mentee to raise the issue as a mentor will probably struggle on trying to find the right approach to make things work. Having said that I find myself frequently asking for feedback and whether or not sessions are helpful.
Sometimes circumstances occur which totally change things. A close family bereavement or a domestic crisis may take over the mentee’s [ or mentor’s] life which puts talk about relationships with your Board into a totally different perspective! It may be best to put mentoring on hold for a while and resume when it feels right to do so.
Where does mentoring go from here? With mentoring increasingly under the spotlight and management gurus extolling its virtues I am sure that it is not only here to stay but will evolve into different forms. Group or team mentoring [ or group work by another name ] might be a developmental tool taking it beyond the individual.
Mentoring for Chairs and Non Executive Directors probably takes place at a friendship level but the need for support on that side of organisations is just as great.
I wish CO3 well with its programme which I know has helped many people over the years and will continue to do so.
Retired CEO and practicing mentor.