The Power and Process of Mentoring
WHAT EXACTLY IS a mentor? Because mentor is often used loosely to refer to various learning relationships, it is important as you set out on your path as a mentee to understand just what mentoring is and what it isn't. We can gain some insight by considering the origins of the word. Mentor is a Greek word stemming from the name of a character in Homer's Odyssey. Mentor was an elderly man, whom Odysseus asked to watch over his son Telemachus when Odysseus set off to fight in the Trojan War. We don't know much about the interactions between Mentor and Telemachus; few conversations are recounted in the story. But at one point the goddess Athena takes the form of Mentor and guides Telemachus in his quest to find his father, and the brief description of this suggests what sets mentoring apart from other learning relationships. Unlike a teacher or even a coach, who is focused on helping us learn and practice a particular set of skills, a mentor acts as a guide who helps us define and understand our own goals and pursue them successfully.
Of course, mentors in today's world may not have a goddess's supernatural powers to help us negotiate our struggles, but they have something else, something that I would argue is just as powerful. They-and you, as a mentee-have access to insights and research about what helps create strong mentoring relationships and what helps adults learn and grow. In the past fifteen years, as mentoring has grown more pervasive and popular and as the field of adult learning has expanded, we have learned a great deal about what both mentors and mentees need to do to build and maintain the kind of relationships that change lives.
WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT GOOD MENTORING RELATIONSHIPS
Good mentoring depends on effective learning. We now know that the best learning occurs when there is a mix of acquiring knowledge, applying it through practice, and critically reflecting on the process. This means that the model of mentoring popular in the 1980s, in which an older, more experienced adult passed on knowledge and information to a younger, less experienced adult, is being replaced by a new model, one that is similar to the one that I first described in The Mentor's Guide (Zachary, 2000). The new model emphasizes the value of the mentees engaging actively in their own learning and critically reflecting on their experiences.
Good mentoring therefore depends on a reciprocal learning relationship between you and your mentor. Together you form a partnership to work collaboratively on achieving mutually defined goals that focus on developing your skills, abilities, knowledge, and thinking.
To be successful, this relationship must have the following elements: reciprocity, learning, relationship, partnership, collaboration, mutually defined goals, and development. Let's look more closely at each of these elements:
Reciprocity This means equal engagement on the part of you and your mentor. Both of you have a responsibility to the relationship and a role to play, and both have much to gain from the relationship as well, not just the mentee. Although mentees often wonder what the mentor has to gain from the relationship, there is more than you might expect. Mentors say that they receive a great deal of satisfaction from sharing their knowledge and experience. Their own perspectives expand as a result of engaging in a mentoring relationship. Often the experience reaffirms their own approaches or suggests new ones. It helps them reconnect to the people in their organization and become reenergized. As a mentee, it is important that you keep this in mind. If you see yourself only as a grateful receiver of help and advice you may be reluctant to ask for what you need.
Learning The purpose, the process, and the product of a mentoring relationship is learning. Your relationship may be a good one, but without the presence of learning there is no mentoring. By learning we mean more than simply acquiring knowledge, which, though important, is but one aspect of learning. The learning that goes on in a mentoring relationship is an active learning: the mentee gains expanded perspectives; knowledge about the ins and outs of the organization, field, or profession; an understanding of what works and doesn't work; and, most important, a deepened self-knowledge and self-understanding. The process of critical reflection enables the mentee to transform and apply learning in new ways. Because mentoring is so learner-focused, it is important to understand yourself as a learner and what you bring to the relationship. Because not everyone learns in the same way, it is useful for both you and your mentor to be aware of the how you learn best. In Chapter Two, on preparing yourself for mentoring, you will find some tools for helping you better understand your own learning style.
Relationship Relationships don't occur by magic. They take time and work to develop. Working at the relationship is part and parcel of effective mentoring. It is difficult to learn if you don't feel secure in the relationship. Hence it is critical that mentoring partners work at establishing and maintaining trust. Without trust a good mentoring relationship is impossible. Without trust mentoring partners tend to take things personally and make false assumptions or start blaming. They end up going through the motions of mentoring rather than the process of mentoring. This underscores the importance of having authentic and honest conversations, being committed to the relationship, and following through on commitments.
Partnership In the past, mentoring relationships were driven by the mentor. The mentor was an authority figure who took the mentee under his or her wing; the mentee was there to receive the wisdom of the mentor and be protected, promoted, and prodded. The current paradigm calls for more involvement of both partners in a mentoring relationship. Just as in any other partnership, mentoring partners establish agreements and become knowledgeable about and attuned to each others' needs. Each mentoring partner is unique and that uniqueness includes all of the experience, history, diversity, and individuality they bring to the mentoring relationship.
Collaboration As with any partnership, the work in a mentoring relationship involves collaboration. Mentor and mentee engage in sharing knowledge and learning and building consensus; in the process they mutually determine the nature and terms of the collaboration. You and your mentor each bring your own experience to the discussions that take place. It is this give and take that contributes to shared meaning, and something greater emerges because of this process. Collaboration requires openness on the part of both mentoring partners.
Mutually defined goals It is hard to achieve a goal that has not been defined. It may be defined in your mind but unless it is mutually defined with your mentoring partner you may be working at cross purposes or on different goals. Clarifying and articulating learning goals is critical to achieving a satisfactory mentoring outcome because mentoring partners must continuously revisit their learning goals throughout the mentoring relationship to keep it on track. Without well-defined goals, the relationship runs the risk of losing its focus.
Development The focus in a mentoring relationship is on the future, that is, developing your skills, knowledge, abilities, and thinking to get you from where you are now to where you want to be. Mentoring thus differs from coaching, which is more oriented toward boosting performance and specific skills in the present.
THE POWER OF MENTORING
What can mentors help you achieve? Our research at Leadership Development Services reveals multiple reasons for individuals seeking mentors. Some are looking for a safe haven, a place to go where they can vent or get candid feedback. Others are seeking a sounding board to test ideas. Many say they don't get the support that they need in their jobs, at school, or in their organizations to manage their productivity.
Within organizations, mentees we've interviewed say that mentors were invaluable in helping them navigate the organization and learn about what works and what doesn't in the organizational culture. Many report increased confidence, risk-taking, and competence in key areas. Others report more visibility in the organization and expanded networks and opportunities. Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers clamor for mentoring, and it is a drawing card for organizations looking to recruit them. What mentees gain from a mentoring relationship has a lot to do with how open they are to learning. Let's turn to Kendra's story and what happened for her as a result of her informal mentoring relationship.
Kendra had been having a hard time at her new job as manager of customer service at a large retail chain. She sought this job to escape from a very toxic situation in her previous workplace, where there was little communication or information sharing and information was used more as a weapon than as a tool for cooperation. At the time, she had assumed that everything that was going wrong in her previous job was her fault in some way. If, for example, someone refused to share information with her, she assumed it was because that person wanted her to fail. On top of this she believed that anyone in a senior position was probably smarter and more competent that she was. As a result, she became overly cautious, untrusting, and lost all self-confidence.
Even though the culture of the new organization was completely different from that of her old job, she was finding it difficult to shake the old feelings, suspicions, and self-doubt. Kendra had brought the defensive and ineffective behaviors she learned at the old job to the new one, and it wasn't working for her. Although the new job had a culture of collaboration and openness, Kendra assumed that people were withholding information and didn't want her to succeed. Instead of trying to function effectively in her new workplace, Kendra's strategy was to focus on impressing everyone and making herself look as good as she could. To this end, she took a very top-down approach, quickly implementing a series of changes and dictating new policies. She managed to alienate her colleagues and the people who reported to her in very short order.
Kendra was lucky, however, because Sandra, the HR manager took notice. She saw that Kendra was struggling and invited her to lunch one day to talk. Sandra made it clear to Kendra that she believed in her and offered to meet with her regularly to give her feedback and direction. Sandra saw, for example, how Kendra's lack of confidence was causing her to make decisions without consulting and working cooperatively with her colleagues and reports. At one meeting, Sandra said, "You need to take credit for your ideas. I would like to see the day when your confidence catches up with your ability. You have good ideas, but you aren't leading." That comment made a big impact on Kendra. She realized that it was OK to admit to yourself and even show others that you are good at something. She started very slowly and tentatively to switch her tactics. Instead of pushing her agenda on others, she began to enthusiastically and straightforwardly present her ideas. As she did, other people began to see value in her work and to see her differently.
Sandra helped Kendra realize exactly what she needed to do to be successful. She was able to make concrete suggestions for ways to approach meetings, influence some tough department heads, and resolve conflicts with her peers. When Kendra saw the results from her first performance review (which involved 360 degree feedback from those she reported to, worked with, and managed) she was overwhelmed by the praise from her colleagues and direct reports. Kendra had left her previous position feeling like a failure. Sandra's help allowed her to change how she behaved, as well as her view of herself and the world around her. Kendra observed, "With Sandra's help I was able to turn myself around."
Although Kendra was not involved in a formal mentoring program, she was engaged in an informal mentoring process with Sandra which allowed her to develop confidence and success at a very critical time in her career. All this came about because Sandra had approached her and essentially offered to informally mentor her at a time when she needed it most.
The profound influence of a mentor's candid in-person feedback can dramatically transform one's personal perspectives and worldview, build self-confidence, and add to one's professional competence.
Some mentees say that mentoring gives them exposure to people and ideas they would never have encountered on their own. Others find that their mentor's belief in them gives them strength and bolsters their courage in taking risks. Some report that mentoring helps demystify their profession, organization, or job. Still others find the benefit of mentoring a way to jump-start their learning process in new and unfamiliar areas.
THE PROCESS OF MENTORING
Mentoring occurs every day in many places and spaces. Mentoring relationships can look very different depending on the people involved. Although spontaneous and informal mentoring can have great results, in this book we focus on a way to intentionally find and nurture mentoring relationships that will help you achieve specific and satisfying results.
As already mentioned, research has taught us a lot about how adults learn best and what makes good mentoring. The bar on mentoring practice has risen considerably over the years as a result. We now know, for example, the kind of preparation and work that both mentor and mentee need to engage in to develop a good relationship, set goals, work to achieve them, and create a satisfying result to their work together. This knowledge has been shaped into a four-stage model, which I first introduced in The Mentor's Guide, and provides a framework for managing the life cycle of a mentoring relationship.
Do you really need a model? Does it seem artificial? Sometimes working with a model can seem awkward or unnatural. If you are concerned about this you are not alone. A number of the people we interviewed explained that although they were initially wary of using a model, they found that it provided them with the fundamentals and a solid structure that made a dramatic difference in the outcomes of the mentoring and helped them derive more satisfaction and learning from their relationships.
The model I presented in The Mentor's Guide sets out four phases of the mentoring relationship: (1) preparing (getting ready), (2) negotiating (establishing agreements), (3) enabling (doing the work), and (4) coming to closure (integrating the learning and moving forward). The phases build on one another to form a predictable developmental sequence that varies in length from one relationship to another. These stages often merge into one another, and as you work together with your mentor you may be unaware that you have progressed from one phase to another.
The Four-Stage Mentoring Cycle
Here are the four stages in more detail.
This is the getting ready phase. It involves preparing yourself for mentoring and preparing the relationship. This phase therefore occurs individually and then jointly. Each partner examines his or her motivations and engages in self-reflection to determine what he or she is expecting from the relationship. Partners then enter into a dialogue and explore these issues together. For mentees, it is especially important at this phase that you honestly examine what you want to learn and how you learn best. The more self-knowledge you have the more prepared you will be to approach the job of defining appropriate and realistic goals. You will be able to come to the relationship with your mentor as a full partner with an agenda of your own. This phase is discussed in Chapters Two and Three.
This is the establishing agreements phase, in which mentoring partners discuss details and agree upon goals, processes, and ground rules. The work that takes place during this phase lays the foundation for the relationship. An important aspect of this phase is establishing trust, and to that end it is important that mentoring partners discuss confidentiality. Another issue that should be addressed during this phase is setting realistic boundaries for your time together to ensure that your work is not derailed by discussions of personal issues. Finally, this is the time in which you set up the logistics of your work, agreeing on questions such as: How often will we meet? Where and for how long? What are target dates for achieving specific goals? You will learn more about this phase in Chapter Four.