First-class Coach: Helping others

I've been asked to be a mentor - what do I get in return?

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I've been asked by someone I used to work with at a different firm to be their mentor. I'm flattered but not sure what it involves, how much time I'd have to commit to it or, more selfishly, what would be in it for me.

Flattering as it is to be asked, given that becoming a mentor will require some time and effort from you, working out what possible advantages the role might have for you personally is sensible rather than selfish. After all, you wouldn't want to take on the role and discover you find it a chore not a pleasure.

Mentoring is nowadays regarded as a two-way street, from which both parties benefit. Successful mentors I know say that, apart from the general warm sense of 'giving something back', being in touch with people at a different age and career stage to themselves helps them be better leaders and managers of their own staff. Other benefits they have found include encouraging them to recognise what they have learned and to reflect on their own abilities and shortcomings.

In terms of time commitment, it's very much up to you to decide how often you would be prepared to see this person. If it's less than quarterly, it may not be worth establishing this relationship. Especially at the initial stages, it is important to have some continuity to identify areas of focus and topics for 'homework' to be reviewed at the next meeting. After the first year, you may meet less often, unless the person you are mentoring undergoes something traumatic, such as losing their job, when you might need to provide greater emotional and professional support.

If you do decide to go ahead, it would be worth asking your mentee (the hideous, but correct term) to write down their expectations and to identify two or three development areas on which they would value your input. If their expectations don't tally with yours, you may need to modify them. The process will also allow you to sift through your thoughts and experience to decide on what would be appropriate advice or examples to bring to your meetings.

Organisations that run formal mentoring schemes usually get both parties to sign a confidentiality agreement before they start and it would be worthwhile you two having at least a verbal agreement. This is particularly important if you work in the same marketplace. If your respective companies are competitors, the risk of sensitive information leaking out (or the anxiety among your peers that it might) is usually enough to stop a mentoring arrangement in its tracks.

You may decide that you would like a preparatory email before each meeting to make sure you both make the best use of your time together. Agreeing actions at the end of the session ensures that you can both review progress at your next meeting. While you may not be your mentee's line manager, you will want to know that your time together is proving valuable.

A word of caution about advice. Ask people how giving advice feels and they'll probably say they enjoy giving their views and feel good about sharing their experience. But ask them about how they feel about being given advice and they are likely to be less positive. Being told what to do, especially if the advice is contrary to our own notions of what's best, is rarely welcomed. The issue is compounded when those giving advice have out-of-date knowledge or lack direct, relevant experience on which to base their comments.

My suggestion is that you act more as a coach than a mentor. This entails asking your mentee to frame the issues they seek to resolve and to outline the options they have thought of for solving them. By listening to how they see problems, you encourage independent thinking and greater resourcefulness in solving their own problems. You will also be in a position to comment on their options and then suggest any alternatives that haven't been mentioned which you feel are worth consideration.

One important role of the mentor is to provide acknowledgement - something that may be in short supply in the mentee's organisation.

For mentoring to be worthwhile, both parties need to be happy with the arrangement, so have a review of how it's going after six to nine months.

If mentoring sounds too formal and too much of a commitment, you could tell the person who has asked you that you'd like to help but have too many commitments to devote sufficient time to do the job properly, but that you would be happy to meet occasionally for a catch-up lunch.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have a problem you'd like her to tackle, email: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk

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