Recognition of the business benefits of mentoring is increasing. Unsurprising, given the perfect storm of disruption as the norm and demographic shifts leading to a multi-generational workplace. This post looks at debunking some myths, new approaches to mentoring, and how a new mentor can overcome common fears.
The old paradigm
The stereotype mentor of the last century is an older, more experienced, father figure dispensing advice to a younger person. He passes down stone tablets to an empty vessel eager to follow in their footsteps to the letter. Do as I say, do as I do. In tune with the hierarchical times and with good intent. Done badly, it is arrogance personified. As the grandiose character of one 1970s TV sitcom would say, “I didn’t get where I am today without having…” (fill in the blanks). Female mentors were thin on the ground.
In today’s world, deference is weaker. Society is more open, questioning, and individualistic. People want greater value. People are less afraid to challenge authority. Some people treat experts with disdain and suspicion.
Those people who start from the old paradigm will struggle to engage with today’s mentees without adjusting to the new realities. That awareness can result in fears or anxieties about being an effective mentor. And if you are new to mentoring, there are hidden traps if you don’t know where to look.
Mentoring approaches today
That one-dimensional style is giving way to a variety of different mentoring approaches. Many of them emphasise a greater equality in the mentoring relationship. They are being applied in a wide variety of contexts. For example, business growth, start-ups, apprenticeships, the transition from education to work, within schools, colleges, and universities, career development inside and outside organisations, and many more.
Formal mentoring schemes are a conscious effort to provide employees support in a turbulent world where wellbeing initiatives align with personal and professional development. Informal mentoring continues without the label and has done since the ancient Greeks.
A massive difference today is wider and instant access to global mentor networks facilitated by the internet and technology. Modern mentoring is no longer a one-size fit all approach and includes:
- Peer mentoring – mentoring within the same peer group. Examples include by gender, ethnicity, educational level, job role, patient to patient for rehabilitation etc.
- Reverse mentoring – where a junior, often younger person mentors an older, more senior person (for example, on engaging with Millennials, social media or technology know-how, cross-cultural understanding). Experience, not age is the key criteria.
- Group mentoring – a small, self-help group, guided by a mentor, that shares ideas, experiences, and learning. For example, for onboarding, new manager development, and return-to-work mothers.
- Micro, flash, spot or speed mentoring – short, sharp interactions on specific, highly-focused issues or situations. LinkedIn is now matching people seeking career advice with people offering expertise in their sector. Other versions include Mentoring Lite within major tech companies and Fast Knowledge Transfer (FKT), although some argue these are not really mentoring.
- E-Mentoring or virtual mentoring – for example, universities are increasingly supporting students using mentoring and video technology, helping them gear up for employment and widening diversity in the workplace. Engagement is no longer restricted by time and physical space in the world of work.
14 common mentoring fears
I’ve experienced four significant mentors at key transition points in my working life. In a new job, a new role within an existing job, and two career changes. Also, I have mentored and trained others to be mentors in education, business, and the armed forces. These experiences give me a good insight into the common fears from both sides of the coin. Here are some examples from a new mentor’s perspective with ways to overcome them:
- I’m not up to the job. Will I be credible in their eyes? Share your relevant experience. Build rapport. Instill confidence through how you mentor them in practice.
- I’ll fail them. What if I don’t live up to their expectations? Discuss their expectations. Negotiate. Be clear about what you expect from them, what they can expect from you, and what they can’t expect.
- I’ll get found out. What if I don’t have the answers? Encourage them to fact-find, explore, and take ownership and responsibility. Point them to other people and resources.
- I’m used to directing people. What if I know the answers? Encourage them to think for themselves first and come up with their own answers. However, then share your knowledge and wisdom if something is not within their experience or know-how. Share what works for you, the pitfalls, and how you deal with them. Don’t tell them what to do. Be a sounding board not a surrogate for their decision-making.
- I’ve not been in their position for some time. What if I don’t have recent experience of being in their shoes? It is less important than your ability to relate and empathize with them.
- I’m unclear what to do. Whose responsibility is it to…? Agree on responsibilities up front. Your role is to facilitate and lead if they are stuck. However, remember it’s the mentee’s agenda and you are not their manager or parent.
- Getting going. How do I get off to a good start in the relationship? Get to know each other, share interests, and be curious. Build a rapport and create trust in the relationship by making it a safe space for them to think, talk, and plan. Your basic tools are listening and questioning.
- What if we don’t get on? Agree at the start for both of you to be open and honest if the relationship isn’t working. Review against your shared mutual expectations.
- What if they don’t know what they want from the mentoring? Explore their current situation and ideas for the future. Be pragmatic and focus on their next step if the longer-term picture is unclear. Open their eyes to new possibilities and perspectives. A different issue may emerge than the one they present initially, so, be flexible.
- I don’t want to fail them. Will I fail if they don’t succeed? Be honest with yourself. Ask for feedback. Humility is your friend because the best mentoring involves two-way learning. Differentiate the success of the mentoring from the wider or longer-term goal of your mentee. That may take a lot longer and it’s down to them.
- I feel ill at ease. How do I deal with personal issues, diversity, mental health, learning difficulties? Get a basic understanding and establish the boundaries. Be open about where you can or can’t help. Signpost to relevant professionals where appropriate.
- I’m alone. Where do I get support from? From the organiser or supervisor if it’s a formal scheme. Remember, a mentor can have a mentor too!
- It’s going to eat up my time. What if they want more time than I can give? Negotiate and set boundaries. Agree what makes sense for you and them.
- It will go on too long. How do I end the relationship? Avoid dependency, foster independence. Set up expectations of the timescale at the start and assess as you go along. Weigh up the mentee’s progress, whether it’s a natural endpoint, and the opportunity cost if you continue.
Ironically, your mentee is likely to have similar fears and anxieties about mentoring. So, put yourself in their shoes and think through how you will address their concerns. It will help you as much as them!
Mentoring is one of life’s best experiences. Who doesn’t want a wise and trusted supporter to inspire you with unconditional belief in your capability and potential? And it’s rewarding as a mentor. Most mentors say the top benefits are the personal satisfaction they get from helping their mentee thrive and their own self-development. It’s a win-win.