‘Do I really have to?’

Not everyone wants to be a mentor so picking the right candidates is crucial
By Catherine Mossop
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/26/2013

Picture the scenario: You ask an employee to mentor someone. But even though your company supports and encourages leaders to help others learn, the employee hesitates, knowing the relationship is a time investment he is not sure he is ready to make.

Companies looking to introduce and grow mentoring initiatives need to carefully consider who they select as mentors. And those who are asked need to carefully consider if they wish to be one, looking at whether it’s the right role, at the right time and for the right reasons.

There are three main considerations to take into account when selecting mentors:

Does the person have the core competencies of a mentor?

In addition to the technical or leadership skills a mentoring committee or protegé is looking to develop, there are six underlying, core capabilities mentors need to have:

They embrace their own setbacks, mistakes: Mentors know they have made mistakes in their career and life journeys and, as a result, they have learned about themselves. Through setbacks, they discover their true beliefs, biases and blind spots. By gaining this self-knowledge, they try out different ways of approaching an issue. They have the self-confidence to share how this understanding of their own actions has an effect on others.

Mentors use their experiences to shape stories that shed light on difficult issues and help others draw parallels with their own circumstances so they can make better decisions.

They are strong conceptual, critical thinkers: By being conceptual, good mentors have the ability to identify patterns or connections in situations that are not obviously related. This conceptual thinking brings new ideas, different angles and alternate scenarios that help others think through problems and issues.

Being strong critical thinkers is not about being judgmental and forthright with right-wrong answers. Critical thinking is a desire to get beyond what is present and doing a deeper exploration.

It is a process of engaging in a debate — be it a reflective process of discovering different angles or a dialogue with others who hold diverse and opposing views.

Critical thinking is the process of opening the mind, being curious and looking at the merits of many ideas.

They know how to ask really good questions: Many times, a protegé will have chosen a specific mentor because of the skills, experiences or influence she has at the organization. Yet the mentor must stick with her role of asking questions and manage her desire to solve the problem, provide an answer or hurry to create a plan for the protegé. Mentors use the experiences of their protegés to explore, challenge thinking and behaviour, and facilitate the development of insight.

Good listening means asking good questions that make the protegé reflect at a deeper level, thus building her own critical-thinking capabilities. A mentoring relationship is about the development of the protegé and the best thing a mentor can do is be a confidential, impartial sounding board.

They share easily: Mentors enjoy learning and share what they know. They fundamentally believe and demonstrate that in sharing information, they will exponentially increase their own knowledge as others will share in return.

They have savvy: One of the best ways for a person to gain insight is through the trusted, supportive feedback of someone who has gone before them down the hard road of experience — they see the fault lines and cliff sheers that lie ahead. Experiences shape our core values.

Mentors know their values and principles and maintain a steady demeanour that reflects their openness to diversity. They will explore differences and use savvy to provide feedback to protegés. Valuable and timely feedback allows a protegé to course-correct and adjust his behaviour and strategies before they become career-limiting moves (or life-smacking disasters).

They are ready to engage in a learning relationship: Mentors learn as much as, and sometimes more than, their protegés. Good mentors take the time to identify their own learning goals for the relationship as part of the engagement process. If a mentor struggles with identifying what she might learn, the relationship will most likely lack the momentum needed to build a learning relationship.

Is it the right time?

Does the person have the time? Too many relationships struggle because of a misunderstanding around the time investment needed to build a meaningful, learning relationship. If someone has a demanding schedule that takes her out of her normal work environment, or she is experiencing a significant life event, she may not have the physical time or emotional capacity to engage in mentoring.

There are many types of mentoring relationships, such as large group, small group, mentor teams, individual one-on-one, formal and informal, virtual and distance, and blended. The time commitment will be different for each type of relationship so a potential mentor should know what is being asked of him.

Are the right reasons in place for a person to be a mentor?

Learning in a mentoring relationship requires a deep level of trust between the mentor and protegé. Very little learning will take place if trust does not exist or, as some have said, “I learned more about what not to do.”

Here are three examples of programs and their goals:

• Build executive leadership talent for succession, with the mentoring relationship spanning two to five years. The protegé goals centre on building capacity to manage increased complexity while the mentor goals are to deepen critical thinking and negotiating skills.

• Effectively integrate internationally trained professionals into the culture of the workplace, through a 12-month relationship. The protegé goals are to learn the organizational culture, norms and behaviours and the mentor goals are to build primary leadership skills.

• Integrate new graduates into the workplace, with the relationship lasting maybe six months in a group mentoring scheme. The protegé goals are to learn how to get things done at the organization, how to build working relationships, and how to meet management and corporate culture, while the mentor goals are to build facilitation and conflict management skills.

Before a mentor is signed up, he should ask himself:

• What are the goals of the corporate mentoring initiative?

• What is the commitment required? Is this realistic in relation to the corporate goals?

• What help or guidance am I being asked to provide to the protegé? Can I realistically deliver?

• Do I possess the underlying core competencies to be an effective mentor?

• How much time is being asked of me and is this realistic in relation to the goals of the program and the protegé?

• What support systems will I have?

• What will I learn by being involved in this relationship?

• If there was a shift in the pressures in my career or life, would I still be prepared to meet with the protegé?

Bringing the right mentor, at the right time, for the right reasons, is key to a successful relationship — while one bad mentor can do untold damage. It’s important to carefully consider who should be ready to step up to make a difference in the life of another employee.

Catherine Mossop is president of Sage Mentors in Whitby, Ont., and a management consultant with expertise in designing mentorship initiatives for organizations and support processes to develop the capabilities of mentors. She can be reached at cmossop@sagementors.com or for more information, visit www.sagementors.com.

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