Although the concept of the Mentor has been around since the time of Homer, it seems very much of the moment. But why should anyone become a mentor? And what does it involve?
The idea of mentoring seems to be having its moment in the sun, with both commercial and public sector organisations investing much time, energy and resources into mentoring programmes. Charities exist simply to enable individuals to mentor others, and organisations like the CIPD enable their members to volunteer their time for mentoring activities.
So it seems sensible to understand what mentoring is, what is required of a mentor, and why an individual might want to become one...
What is Mentoring?
The more traditional concept of mentoring centres on the opportunity for experienced, senior members of a group, organisation or society to share their knowledge, expertise, experiences and views with the less experienced, more junior members, to help them progress in career and life.
More recently the idea of mentoring has been expanded, to include a variety of possible relationships in which an individual or individuals can share with others, for the benefits of all. So now we have "Reverse mentoring", group mentoring and online mentoring amongst other options.
At the heart of all these varieties lies the same core principle - Mentoring aims to be a meaningful relationship, with conversation, discussion, sharing and learning for mutual benefit.
Within the working environment there can be a number of reasons why a mentoring relationship, or a mentoring programme is established:
To support employee career development
As part of a talent programme to facilitate high potential development
As part of a focus on inclusion and diversity
As a key method to transfer knowledge throughout the organisation
The benefits associated with these aims are clear for the organisation; greater retention, increased expertise, succession planning, and for the individual; career development, greater opportunity and so on. What can be more elusive to pin down is the real value for the mentor, particularly when we consider the demands placed upon a mentor...
The demands of a Mentor
To be a good mentor requires a number of qualities, without which the relationship is unlikely to be of value:
1. Interest and Generosity
As mentoring relationships are usually instigated either by an organisation, or by someone looking for a mentor, their interest is clear, but the mentor also needs to be genuinely curious about the individual they are involved in supporting. Those who like the sound of their own voice, or are merely looking for the chance to demonstrate how successful they have been, won't be of much value. It takes a person who truly wants to understand you, your goals, your strengths, your weaknesses, and your interests to offer valuable, relevant guidance and support. Allied to this genuine interest needs to be a desire to help, and willingness to spend time and energy with you, and a wish for you to succeed.
A mentoring conversation has to be honest otherwise it'll be of little use. During the course of it there will be times that require encouragement and enthusiasm, but equally there will be times that require some home truths. A mentor must be prepared to put forward their own views, even when they might not be easy to receive.
3. Trust and Discretion
A mentoring relationship can be very powerful, but also very intense. You may be required to disclose deep concerns and fears. In order for that to be possible, a high level of trust must be established between a mentor and the person they are mentoring. Trust takes time to build, but one moment of indiscretion can destroy it, irrevocably. Mentors must be the souls of discretion.
4. Self Awareness
Finally, self awareness. In order to be of real value, a mentor must be aware of their own qualities, their own development, the actions they took to get where they are and the consequences of those actions. This ability to identify the cause and effect of different situations, to "join the dots" as Steve Jobs put it, will allow the mentor to help you uncover the patterns in your own life and work. As many have said, in order to share your wisdom, you need to have wisdom to share.
So why Mentor?
Given all the demands placed upon you, why would anyone mentor someone else? For a number of great reasons!
The sense of satisfaction you gain at helping another is not to be underestimated
You have the opportunity to add real value to your organisation
In the process you get some great feedback on your own skills, such as your communication
And you have the chance to learn as much from the relationship as the individual you mentor
Having started by referring to Homer, I'll end with a quote from Plutarch;
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled"
Mentoring is a great way to do that for both people involved in the relationship.