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Paying it forward: how to be an effective mentor

Your experience and skills are valuable assets to share with others but mentoring is much more than just a one-way street.

It’s more than just a noble undertaking. Passing on your wisdom to those less experienced can bring you rewards and benefits as well.


Around two out of three mentors can expect to learn something from their mentee, according to research by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI). In a survey of more than 1,000 professionals, 66% of mentors reported benefitting from the relationship.


AHRI National President Peter Wilson isn’t surprised, he’s seen it himself. He says a mentee may have experienced issues that cause their mentor to rethink their own approach. For example, there’s the mentor of a young woman who learned about the prejudice and barriers the woman faced in her organisation. The mentor realised that the language and behaviours causing difficulty for his mentee were prevalent in his own workplace.

As a result, he worked on making his organisation a more inclusive environment for women, says Wilson, who interviewed 100 Australian leaders in business, politics, sport and community organisations for his book, Make Mentoring Work (Major Street Publishing, 2015).


Another benefit is for those who are mentoring ‘digital natives’. While you may be handing over your know-how, your relationship gives you the chance to pick your mentee’s brains on IT issues.


Similarly, mentoring younger people offers first-hand and valuable insights into the thoughts and challenges of a different generation. It’s evidence that can help inform your decisions and reactions at work.


A mentor is not a coach


Mentoring is sometimes confused with coaching or even with being a role model. But the skills for mentoring are quite different and more subtle than coaching, according to Wilson.


“The terms ‘role model’ and ‘mentor’ are often interchanged but they’re not the same. A role model is someone who you might look up to and be like; you try and shape yourself in the way they do things; adopt those practices or leadership attributes. But a role model might not take any interest in you, they might not know what you’re doing. A mentor does. They take a close personal interest in you.”


Meanwhile, coaching is a direct intervention to fix a performance weakness. “For example, a specialist coach in a professional sporting team; getting a basketballer to go left as well as right. Once you’ve done that you’ve done your job,” says Wilson.


“But a mentor is a confidential relationship with a mentee about their work, their life, their hopes and fears for as long as the two parties agree that there’s value to add to that equation. That’s a much broader canvas.”


The nature of the relationship may mean that it may better to be mentored by people outside your organisation to avoid internal politics getting in the way.


“The objectives and values of the organisation sometimes inhibit or conflict with the maximum value from a mentoring relationship. If the mentor’s outside the organisation you’ll relate to them more freely,” says Wilson.


“For example, if you have a mentor at work and your biggest challenge is dealing with a boss who’s a bully that also happens to be a close personal friend of your mentor, you’re not going to say very much are you?”


Wilson says two of his mentors had been his bosses “but the mentoring relationship really took off after we ceased to work in the same organisation”.


Where do mentors go wrong?


A good mentor spends 80% of their time listening and 20% talking and asking penetrating questions that get to the heart of the issues the mentee is confronting, according to Wilson. Bad mentors spend most of their time talking.


“Very good mentors make you feel responsible for the decision you take. They might give you very subtly the solution you should apply, but a good mentor knows that the mentee needs to own the decision they make.


“You can’t instruct a mentee and some mentors adopt the role of directive leader or adopt a certain directive or pastoral approach, which has a moral hazard in it. Because if you keep solving the mentees problems they’ll never grow up.”


Next step to become or find a mentor


One of the easiest way to become a mentor is to join a formal mentoring scheme with your professional body, where you’ll be matched with a mentee.


Alternatively, look around you, says Wilson. “You can’t force yourself onto people as a mentor but there’ll always be people close to you such as family or friends that you can help.”


As for finding a mentor for yourself, apart from joining a formal scheme, you could identify someone appropriate and simply approach them, says Wilson.


“I’ve been knocked over in my mentoring interviews and research by the compassion and generosity of the spirit of senior people and their willingness to help, even though they’re time-poor and busy people.”

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