THE BLOG

Dispelling the Mentoring Myths

12/02/2014 12:03 GMT | Updated 13/04/2014 10:59 BST

There comes a point in many people's careers when they elevate from mentee, to mentor. Often you can tell when this transition is occurring. For instance, a former employee gets in touch wanting to chat about their career, or someone is referred to you by a friend or colleague.

Whatever the circumstance, becoming a mentor is truly a gift, a responsibility not to be taken lightly. So why is it that some leaders embrace the role willingly and with gusto, whereas others shy away from it?

When I talk with those leaders about why they don't mentor, I frequently receive reasons littered with feelings of unease and doubt. They feel uncomfortable with the idea of offering career advice to a young professional that doesn't work directly for them. How could they offer guidance to a person who works outside of their own professional context? That's the point, I tell them, providing an objective ear. And it's not all about giving advice, or telling someone what to do. Yet, some remain unconvinced.

So, in the spirit of dispelling these misconceptions - and based on my 20 something years experience mentoring people from all walks of life and professions - here are my guiding principles for the budding mentor.

A mentor isn't there to provide all the answers:

The role of the mentor is to provoke the individual into thinking about what they should be considering. The best mentors of all are the ones that say the least, but provide a sense of conscience that the individual may, or may not, be taking the correct path.

Ask the right questions:

Sometimes the mentee is so entrenched in an issue, incessantly thinking about it and drawing negative conclusions, that they've overwhelmed any potential for a rational perspective or solution. Asking considered questions can help encourage the individual out of their cocoon, and pull free of the destructive bunker-mentality. It should help them start thinking differently about whatever it is that they're facing.

Try to avoid over-mentoring:

A lot of people collect mentors like the Australian cricket team collects victories (sorry readers from England, I couldn't help myself). They have a stable of experienced people that they regularly turn to for guidance, so avoid ever having to think for themselves. So, upon meeting with your mentee, ask them if they have anyone else performing a similar role in their lives. Also, don't be overly accessible. It won't help them in the long run as, again, they won't be in a position to think for themselves.

Establish some clear parameters from the outset as to when you're available to talk.

Anecdotal advice:

Sometimes fledgling professionals believe what they're feeling or facing is unique to them. Chances are what they're going through is not uncommon, and might be something you have encountered yourself. Relating to them through anecdotal advice, sharing insights on common experiences and challenges - swapping war stories if you like - can help build a real bond, enlighten the individual's perspective and help build trust between the two of you, which is very important.

And I don't mean it's about saying they should take a certain course because "that's what I did". It's about easing their concerns, helping them think clearly so they understand that their career will likely be full of challenges that they'll need to navigate.

Mentoring isn't the same as managing:

Unlike a manager, it's important for a mentor to create a relationship grounded in independence. Maintaining objectivity is essential for the meetings to be worthwhile for mentor and mentee. You can become close, but ensure it's not at the expense of why you're sitting across the table from each other. Substance and internal challenge is a stronger beast than positive reinforcement for the sake of it.

To me, whether you're in business, politics, sports or the community, if you're in a leadership position, you have an undeniable responsibility to make yourself available for eager young leaders to tap into your wisdom and experience. In the spirit of mentoring, I hope my suggestions offer some guidance to those of you wanting to guide.