Earlier last month I had the pleasure of speaking to the Networking Group of the Halton Chapter of the Human Resources Professionals Association in Burlington.  For the last several years I have frequently been invited to speak at their Kick Off event, and whenever I am invited I always jump at the opportunity.  Part of my enthusiasm arises from the fact that I enjoy meeting and speaking with positive, upbeat and highly motivated HR professionals who give so readily of their time and experience.  However, over the course of my professional career I’ve become a stalwart advocate and cheerleader for mentoring as I have seen and experienced first-hand the many benefits it provides.

So….what is so great about mentoring?  In a word…plenty!

What is Mentoring?

Simply put, mentoring is a relationship in which a more experienced colleague uses his or her greater knowledge and understanding of the work or the workplace to support the development of a more junior or experienced individual.  A big part of mentoring is providing a safe environment in which the mentee can share his or her issues, problems or concerns that may affect their personal or professional success.  Mentoring goes way beyond simply learning goals or competencies to include work/life balance, self-confidence, self-perception, and a host of other issues.

Why Mentoring?

From a corporate perspective, companies institute mentoring when:

  • They want to develop their leaders or a talent pool as part of succession planning.
  • They seek to develop growth and opportunities amongst employees who may be disadvantaged, and where the removal of barriers is important to their professional success.
  • When they want to more completely develop their employees in ways that go beyond merely skills or competency development.
  • When they strive to promote knowledge transfer from older to younger employees; or 
  • When they want to create a workforce that balances employees’ professional and personal development.

Why the Sudden Focus on Mentoring?

Mentoring isn’t a new idea, and has been around for years.  However, in recent years it has attracted renewed focus.  Why?

The answer is probably found in today’s work environment.  Serious of repeated downsizings over the years have stripped out several layers of experienced middle managers in many organizations.  These were important individuals who often guided and tutored more junior or inexperienced employees.

Technology has also played a huge role.  While it has greatly accelerated the pace of work and decision-making these gains have come at the pace of reflection, contemplation and careful thought.  In an instantaneous workplace there is no time for slow thinking.  Supervisors no longer have the time to devote to guiding or tutoring less new employees…or they simply don’t know how.  Workplace expectations now require employees to “hit the ground running”.  Today’s workplace environment provides little time or scope for personal reflection and professional development.

In this environment, mentoring is a surrogate for the kind of close interaction that used to exist between supervisors and their employees.  Mentoring goes beyond simply monitoring performance vs. expectations, or last month’s deliverables.  

What to look for in a Mentor

If you are looking for a mentor, here, I submit, are the qualities you should be searching for in a prospective candidate:

  • A willingness to share ideas, knowledge and expertise.
  • Acts as a positive role model.
  • Takes a personal interest in others.
  • Exhibits enthusiasm.
  • Values learning and growth.
  • Provides constructive feedback.
  • Values others’ opinions.
  • Capable of motivating others.

Practical Tips for Mentors

If you find yourself invited to act as a mentor, here are some practical tips and advice that may be of assistance in managing your relationship:

  • Focus on two or three areas for improvement (e.g. decide whether you will be focusing on skills development, performance enhancement or career advancement).
  • Jointly set realistic goals that are Simple, Attainable and Realistic.
  • Set a realistic timetable for calls or meetings.  Establish action items after discussions.
  • Remember that mentees should do most of the talking.
  • Keep your discussions to about an hour.
  • Have an outline for your talks but allow for deviation.
  • Be sensitive to your mentee’s moods, needs and changes.
  • Schedule meetings in advance.  Re-group regularly to ensure you are both on the same wavelength.
  • Celebrate successes regardless of whether they are small or modest.
  • Consider using an intake form early in the process.
  • Take notes as an important memory aid.
  • Consider using some type of online assessment (e.g. MBTI) to gain an insight into the personality, style or preferences of your mentee.

A Final Thought

Last month marked the anniversary of the passing of a very dear friend.  John was probably the closest person I had in my career to a “mentor”.  He and I met at a Human Resources function in 1989, and for some strange reason that I can only attribute to fate we hit it off immediately.

John was about 15 years older than me, and was an experienced, accomplished and very savvy Human Resources professional. Throughout his career he held many senior positions with a variety of companies in the Greater Toronto Area.  Over and above his professional success John possessed profound wisdom and a deep, abiding concern in the well-being of others.  During my career I repeatedly reached out to him for personal and professional advice, and he was always there for me.  John was exceedingly generous with both his time and counsel, and his support was instrumental during the early, formative stages of my career.

John passed away in March 2011, and oddly, three days before I lost my mother.  Even though he has been gone eight years now I still think of him often with great fondness and affection.  If we are fortunate in our lives there are a handful of people who cross our paths whose kindness, support and generosity of spirit shape our destiny and materially impact our lives.  For me, John was certainly one of those people.

There is a wonderful quote from Whoppi Goldberg that I used in my concluding remarks during my presentation on Mentoring.  Its simplicity and elegance captures the essence of Mentoring, beautifully:

We’re here for a reason. I believe a bit of the reason is to throw little torches out to lead people through the dark.” … Whoopi Goldberg