In my role, I have the opportunity to work with some amazing individuals on so many different fronts and levels. Over the last few years, I’ve been a mentor to some great people looking to learn and grow as professionals. Some are making a career transition, others are “new to the game”, and a some are just looking to learn a few new tips and tricks.
I confess I never really thought about mentoring – as a mentor or a mentee – until a few years ago when I was asked to be a mentor to someone. It was a rather formal professional invitation, part of a professional development program. I agreed to be matched with someone, and duly awaited my mentee’s introduction.
At this point in my career, I hadn’t formed a good impression of the process of mentorship. A few years earlier, someone who I didn’t know very well (and didn’t especially admire) offered, without invitation, to mentor me. We were assigned to work together on a strategic planning exercise, and in one of our first meetings they outlined to me the great benefits of this opportunity for me to learn from them. Mm-hmm.
It didn’t work especially well. Not because I don’t think I need to learn from others - far from it, I learn from others every single day. I didn’t work because it wasn’t invited. The proffered mentorship created a strange and largely unworkable relationship, mostly due to the uninvited nature of it (why would I want to learn how to be more like someone I didn’t want to emulate?) but also because of their misinterpretation of mentorship (a.k.a. mentee as acolyte or servant). Needless to say, we’re not connected on LinkedIn.
So when it was my chance to be a mentor to someone, I definitely did not want to be that person. Being a mentor is a privilege - to be acknowledged as someone with the experience and skill that someone might want to learn from and emulate, makes one both proud and humble at once. It’s also a responsibility – how you do it can influence a person and their career, so you better do it well.
My three main priorities when mentoring:
To me, the most effective mentorship occurs when both mentor and mentee choose to work together. Much like most effective relationships in any setting, both parties have to be in it together, and to see some individual and mutual benefit.
An interesting wrinkle in the relationship occurs when the mentor is also the supervisor. It’s important for the mentor to maintain clearly when they are putting on their supervisor hat, such as when the conversations become about performance, discipline or company policy. But as a supervisor, providing mentorship opportunities should be part of the required activities. Those who work for you are also your responsibility – being accessible and providing staff with an engaging environment should be standard procedure. A bit like common sense, though – actually, pretty uncommon.
Although the supervisor-as-mentor relationship lacks one of the key elements – choice – it is still an effective environment for mentorship, as long as it’s something that both supervisor and employee want. Not all employees want your mentorship, but supervisors should be open to providing it when they do.
Mentorship provides the opportunity to guide and support developing professionals through the various angles and avenues of career profession, and can cover a wide range of objective and subjective parts of a mentee’s growth and learning. Unlike an apprenticeship, where there are specific skills and knowledge to impart and tests to pass, mentorship is a safe and nurturing environment because the subjects can be expansive, and there are no tests.
There is mutual benefit. The mentee should gain from the expertise and experience (dare I say, wisdom?) of the mentor. What does the mentor get out of it? In addition to the tips and tricks and new ideas that I take away from mentoring, the most obvious thing to me is the opportunity to give back – to contribute to future leaders and developing (dare I say, younger?) managers. A key lesson from one of my leadership favourites, Ernest Shackleton, is “leave a legacy”. Part of that is passing on lessons learned and experiences had to those who can use them to shape their own styles and careers, setting an example for the mentors of tomorrow.
This recent article piqued my interest for two reasons:
More troubling is the notion that critical life questions ("Should I get married?", "Should I move?") can be answered in 10 minutes by an algorithm that is based on the answers and lives of others who take the quiz...sorry, assessment. While the site does offer access to live life coaches, even the answers and follow-up provided (at least what is posted for public viewing) seem somewhat trite, and much more directive than coach-like.
I contrast this with my own personal coach experience over the past year. While there was a "quiz" involved at the start, it was a much more in-depth assessment intended not to answer questions but to ask them. It provided the basis for future work and discussion about things that I feel work well for me and things that I'd like to change or improve. For me, the results were surprisingly accurate and objective. There was none of the the fortune-cookie-like "everything is wonderful" language, and no easy "this is what you should do" answers. There was an accurate (to me) reflection of how I perform and act and feel in various areas of my life, and the clear opportunity to use this self-recognition to work and feel and live a bit better.
There is an expectation that coaching is going to fix you or your life - to fix the things that are not working or provide a "quick-fix" to challenges that plague work or relationships, without you doing anything except answering a few questions. Moreover, the expectation is that you'll be told what to do, that after a quick survey or some venting about boss/co-workers/husband/children, you'll be told the three important steps to take to fix it all. This seems to be the Cloverbox approach: tell us your dilemma and we'll tell you which option to choose, as if there are always only yes-or-no options. This is not coaching - this is pop-culture counselling.
A coach - especially a good coach - helps you to identify for yourself what is broken and how best to fix it for you. They don't tell you what to do (or they avoid that as much as possible). They ask questions and listen a lot. They serve as a reflection or record of what you say about yourself and what you want, and challenge you to explain or live up to (or down to) those things. They guide you to think about and answer your own questions, so that the answers are truly yours. And even when you don't know what's wrong, or what you want or need to fix, they work with you to get you to figure that out.
This article describes another professional's coaching experience. Depending on the circumstances, a coach with subject matter expertise in your field may be appropriate. It depends on what you're looking for - specific skills improvement or more broad assessment and adjustment. More important is to be in sync with the approach or style of the coach; a personal connection is key to personal coaching, and I don't think it can work without that. Most important is to select someone and an approach you feel comfortable with, but will also one that will challenge you. Even though the coach is getting paid, you have to do most of the work. Think of it as a personal training for your psyche.
I did not think coaching would work for me, or even that I needed it. I was anticipating more lecturing or at least more talk about what I "should" do or be doing, or pushing in directions I was not interested in going. I was not expecting that it would be such hard personal work, or that it would be as helpful and rewarding as it has been. I think of my coach as a vocal conscience, because so much of what he says is my own words said back to me. He listens, asks questions, and most often says things like, "so what does that tell you?" He hears about something that seems quite large or insurmountable to me, breaks it down into manageable pieces, and talks me through putting them back together. We've addressed confidence, organization, communication, intuition, and conflict, and I've developed insights and strategies that work for me.
After a year, I'm still at it, and I look forward to each session - to the chance to share updates on what's happened but more importantly about what I've done or discovered for and about myself. The benefits far outweigh the costs (including the the investment of time and mental energy) and I hope to continue for some time
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.