Management & Leadership

What mentoring is… and what it’s not

Oct 10, 2017
What is a mentor

While the rewards of mentorship are real and lasting, helping others grow is not something that motivates everyone. So what does it take to be a good mentor?

Key takeaways

  • Mentoring differs from coaching in that it is more directive, and involves, teaching, telling, training, instructing, advising, guiding or supporting.
  • There are different types of mentoring, each with its own unique outcomes and potentially differing processes.
  • Mentoring comes naturally to some, but it can also be learnt.

In South Africa, we are all too aware of the need to develop people and nurture entrepreneurs, and mentoring is often touted as the method of choice for doing so. However, as John Paisley, Director of Procoaching, points out, it seems likely that the debate over the distinctions between coaching and mentoring will last forever.

Here, Paisley, a teacher, lecturer, and learning and leadership specialist who been involved in education, training and development for more than 30 years, explains what exactly mentoring is, how it works, and why it should not be confused with coaching…

“Mentoring is the process whereby a wiser, more experienced and knowledgeable person transmits his or her experience and knowledge to a person who does not yet have that knowledge or experience,” he says, adding that “transmits” is the operative word in this case. “It can mean ‘teaches’, ‘tells’, ‘trains’, ‘instructs’, ‘advises’, ‘guides’ or ‘supports’ and, as such, mentoring therefore differs from coaching in that it is more directive.”

Mentoring is also “domain specific”, Paisley adds. “This means that the mentor must have experience or knowledge in the domain in which he or she is mentoring. To put it simply, an accountant could not mentor an architect if he has no knowledge of architecture.”

Paisley highlights the different types of mentoring, each with its own unique outcomes and processes:

  • Qualification mentors support those who are working towards a qualification. In South Africa, accountants and engineers working towards professional status are required to have mentors who guide them towards that qualification. These mentors must have successfully acquired the qualification.
  • Career mentors support those who wish to develop or follow a particular career. Knowledge of career possibilities and a strong network of contacts are invaluable in this regard.
  • On-boarding mentors ensure the transition into an organisation is smooth and speedy. Knowledge of the organisation, its culture, policies and processes is imperative.
  • Leadership mentors develop leaders.
  • Learning mentors enable learners to implement their learning.
  • Entrepreneur mentors build business skills for entrepreneurs.
  • Domain-specific mentors have the required experience and knowledge in a specific field or profession, or in an aspect of a field, such as human resources, logistics, marketing, finance, IT, teaching, admin, management, and so on.
  • Life mentors are usually role models, such as parents, priests, teachers, or older siblings – those whose wisdom guides us through life. Life mentors can be with their mentees for a long time.
  • Casual mentors are those who pass through our lives briefly but leave their mark through a few words or some action that we come to admire.

What makes a good mentor?

Given the above distinctions, it’s important that organisation leaders clearly identify the type of mentoring that will best serve their businesses, insists Paisley, who believes that volunteer mentors often have the most powerful effect. “Those who are keen to help (not rescue) others, who have an abundance (as opposed to scarcity) approach and who are willing to sacrifice their own time and energy, are those who will inevitably make a positive difference.”

According to Paisley, the mentor’s attitude is key. “Many people feel it is simply not their responsibility to grow others. Some fear losing their power if they share their knowledge. At other times, racism or sexism underlies a reluctance to pass on experience. More often than not, a deep-seated sense of insecurity underlies these fears.”

Crucial, too, to the mentor’s ability is to remember what it was like not to know, to be naïve, says Paisley. “I have come across mentors who have difficulty translating their experience to someone new to the field. Ever had a tech geek explain a computer programme in language you don’t understand? That feeling of foolishness is not at all conducive to good learning or confidence building.”

Mentoring comes naturally to some, but it can also be learnt, says Paisley. “Certainly, there is value in developing coaching skills (such as questioning and listening), as well as in providing a model and process for beginner mentors. As a rule of thumb, mentors should only give advice when the mentee is ‘stuck’ or specifically asks for it. Mentors should bear in mind the words of American writer and management consultant Margaret Wheatley: ‘People support what they create, and resist what they are excluded from’.”

On the other side of the relationship, care should be given to selecting the mentees, he continues. “As in coaching, where ‘coaching readiness’ is critical, so ‘mentee readiness’ is equally important. Mentoring works best where the mentee is open to learning from the mentor. It is also very powerful to thoroughly prepare mentees for mentoring, ensuring that the relationship, outcomes and boundaries are clearly understood. Also, where possible, both mentors and mentees should voluntarily choose their mentees/mentors. Working with someone you disrespect does not lead to great results.”

When mentoring really works

While the rewards for being a good mentor are tangible and lasting, helping others grow is not something that necessarily motivates everyone,” Paisley points out. “Tradition dictates that mentors were not paid for mentoring, but this idea is fast losing traction as the positive outcomes of ‘professional’ paid mentorship – particularly in the field of entrepreneur development – are more widely acknowledged.”

As a result of this shift, there are organisations where formal mentoring programmes have been implemented. “These will have carefully identified outcomes and measurables, and will involve the focused enrolment of mentors and mentees as well as the development of skills for both, and a planned and coordinated programme, with regular sessions, feedback, supervision and evaluation,” Paisley explains.

On the flipside, however, are organisations where informal mentoring is order of the day. “Here, the process will be an organic one, and encouraged but not necessarily planned and coordinated. Mentors show up, find and connect with mentees and off they go, as often as is necessary and for as long as is necessary,” he says.

Are you interested in learning more about the sacred role that mentors play within our society, and gaining a greater understanding of the methods used to bring out the best in others? The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a range of accredited coaching courses, from a part-time Coach Practitioner Programme to a Postgraduate Diploma in Coaching. For more information, enquire now.

Ultimately, though, the success of any mentorship programme depends on the dedication of those involved. “What helps is commitment and support from the top, with a champion and sponsor who can create a learning-mentoring environment. Selecting the right mentors and mentees, developing their skills, careful contracting, skillful planning and coordination with an abundance of appreciation, recognition and reward all ensure success and a positive and powerful outcome.”

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