A few weeks ago we started talking about the topic "mentoring". We thought it would be a good idea to understand what good mentoring actually is before starting implementing it. That question "What is good mentoring?" was not so easily answered. We agreed to meet again on this topic after researching about it. This article provides some ideas of the outcome of that research. To make the concept a bit easier to understand we will use a car ride as comparison.
We have a lot of good/excellent mentors at Staffbase. There are also a lot of colleagues that would be good mentors in case they would agree to join a mentoring relationship. Often enough there is quite some uncertainty what being a mentor actually entails which leads to little participation. Here we want to help out a bit with this uncertainty.
Some properties of good mentors are so obvious that they are only listed here. That is what you might find when you google for “What makes good mentors?”:
- Are good listeners and value other perspectives
- Are available and willing to invest time for their mentee
- Are knowledgeable and eager to learn something new
- Know what they do not know and are able to find resources that fill the gaps
Even if these points are quite obvious they are valid and play a major role in a successful mentoring relationship. But, there are also five very specific thoughts that might help to make the difference between good mentors and not so good mentors. For the latter group we use the term bad mentors in the following sections.
Let us imagine the following situation. A mentor and a mentee are driving in a car. The mentee is sitting in the driver seat and the mentor is sitting in the passenger seat. The mentor would probably be a better driver in the given situation than the mentee. Being a bad mentor in that situation would mean telling the mentee exactly how to drive: when to change gear, when to brake or when to accelerate. That way the mentee learns the mechanics but not when and how to act or react in a particular situation. The bad mentor says:
No! Too fast! Now turn left! Faster! Faster! Now to the right!
Being a good mentor in this situation means the mentee has full control about how and where to drive. The mentee learns to make the correct decisions alone. The mentor is there to offer advice and directions only. In case of danger the mentor can still pull the handbrake and probably would say something like:
We have two options now. We could leave the highway and try to merge into traffic without endangering others or we could continue on the highway. It gets bumpy from here and it is harder to keep the steering wheel straight. What is your choice?
First in short: Constructive feedback is feedback the mentee can learn something from. “All good here!” is not constructive at all. There is always potential for improvement and for learning something new.
The driving lesson is over now. The mentor is asked to provide feedback to the mentee.
The bad mentor will criticize all the mistakes the mentee made from the mentor's point of view directly. Next, he tells the mentee what he would have done in each and every situation instead. Last but not least the mentor tells the mentee that he even doubts that he will pass driving school. Maybe a statement could sounds like this:
You have been driving through the traffic light when it was red two times. I do not get how you could do that. It is a miracle that we are still alive. The way you drive you can forget about getting your driver's license!
A good mentor will/should start the feedback with at least one positive aspect from the driving lesson. Next, the mentor talks about her experiences in the same or a comparable situation as the mentee is in right now. She/he explains her/his own mistakes back from driving school and what she/he learned from it.
I liked that you were very careful not to accelerate too much today. However, we have been driving through the traffic light when it was red two times. That happened to me too when I went to driving school. I just did not see the traffic light in time.
That might help the mentee to reflect his/her own style of driving and prevents the mentor from criticizing the mentee directly. Finally, the mentor will reflect that she/he sees progress in the driving skills of the mentee. The mentor reinforces to the mentee that he/she should continue the way she/he is doing. That last point sounds too thick for you? You are probably right. This is where our next piece of the puzzle comes into play: empathy.
Empathy is all about perspective and feelings of the mentee. Empathy is something that cannot easily be taught. It is more a question of experience with the mentee. There might even be “good” days and “bad” days for the mentor and the mentee that require different approaches.
This is the same situation as before: The driving lesson is over now. The mentor is asked to provide feedback to the mentee. This time the bad mentor provides positive feedback from start to end since the mentee asked for it.
All good here! Nothing to worry about! You went through the traffic light when it was red two times, but that is not bad at all.
The good mentor will provide the mentee feedback the way they agreed on at the beginning of their mentoring relationship. If they agreed on candid feedback, she might say.
I liked that you were very careful not to accelerate too much today. And we have been driving through the traffic light when it was red two times. We and others could be dead by now. That is a situation that must be prevented from happening again under all circumstances. Let's recap how it came about and let's think together how we can avoid this situation in the future.
If both agreed on positive feedback, it sounds quite different:
I liked that you were very careful not to accelerate too much today. And we have been driving through the traffic light when it was red two times. That happened to me too when I went to driving school. I just did not see the traffic light. Let’s recap how it came about and let's think together how we can avoid this situation in the future.
Another way to show empathy is to ask the mentee to reflect on the situation from their own point of view. The mentor asks questions but does not judge.
Mentee: I have been driving through the traffic light when it was red two times. Mentor: Do you have any idea how this could happen? Mentee: Not sure. I think I saw the traffic light too late. Mentor: Can you imagine why you have seen the traffic light too late? Mentee: I think I was distracted. Mentor: Do you know what exactly distracted you? Mentee: There was this beautiful new electric car behind us.
Now coming back to good days and bad days for mentors and mentees that might require different approaches of empathy. By starting a mentoring session with smalltalk, both the mentor and the mentee might realize in which moods and feelings the other one is right in this moment. Additionally, before the actual session starts both could agree on a feedback style that reflects their current moods and feelings.
Mentor and mentee talk about their goals for the mentoring before they start the mentorship. That is probably no surprise for you at all.
The bad mentor would prioritize his own ideas and goals. The mentorship plan would be the mentors plan. See first idea at the top of this post.
The mentee wants to become a better driver. The mentor wants to teach the mentee to drive the same way he does.
A good mentor would support the mentee in whatever he wants to achieve. The mentoring would be the mentees plan counseled by the mentor. She/he asks about the aspirations and goals of the mentee. And she/he asks also about the expectations of the mentee towards her/him. Does the mentee look for a sparring partner or for guidance? Is the mentorship for the mentee about insights or reflection?
The mentee wants to become a better driver by driving a lot and receiving feedback from the mentor. The mentor also wants the mentee to become a better driver. She/he is willing to accompany the mentee while driving and provide feedback after each session.
Now imagine the mentors ideas about the mentorship are the same as those of the mentee. Let's start right away, right? No! Stop!
It makes a lot of sense to talk about expectations right at the beginning and then compare their common understanding about their mentoring relationship. But, what if mentor and mentee realize that their understanding of the mentoring is not the same? Of course nobody would do the mentoring then.
The mentee wants to become a better driver by driving a lot and receiving feedback from the mentor. The mentor wants to teach the mentee to drive the same way she/he does by driving himself/herself while the mentee is sitting in the passenger seat.
In case there is a lot of overlap, let’s try to reduce the mentoring to the overlapping points and leave points out where both disagree. The disagreement points might start to get important sooner or later and hinder the mentorship. Reflection about these disagreement points from time to time will help to find out whether the mentorship relation can be enhanced and if the relationship sill works. When mentor and mentee are not able to reduce their mentorship relation to the overlapping points it is probably a good idea to not start the mentoring at all.
How do mentors or mentees know whether there is progress in their mentoring relationship?
Bad mentors would go into every mentoring session unprepared and without a plan. The mentor jumps from topic to topic not caring whether the mentee makes progress or not.
Just go for it. Let's see where it goes.
Good mentors support their mentee in reaching their goals by checking together with their mentee.
Last time we agreed to proceed today with merging into traffic without endangering others. Still ok for you or do you want to proceed with another point from the list?
Good mentors will make sure that there is a clear goal of mentoring. They both know and understand:
- What is the mentoring goal?
- How do they both know that they reached their mentoring goal?
- Which activity might help to reach this mentoring goal?
- How do these activities contribute to the overall progress of the mentee?
- How do they both know that they are still on track and when to reflect this?
- How much time to invest in which action?
The list above is not specific for mentoring. It is an adaptation of implementation management. You can be sure it works for mentoring pretty well. As an alternative to measure whether your mentoring is on track you could use Objective Key Results as well.
A good mentor ...
- Is a good listener who values other perspectives.
- Is available and is willing to invest time for their mentee.
- Is knowledgeable and is eager to learn something new.
- Knows what she/he does not know and is able to find resources that fill the gaps.
- Let the mentee make all the decisions about their mentoring topic.
- Provides constructive feedback and positive reinforcement.
- Is emphatic all the time.
- Reflects and communicates expectations of the mentoring relationship repeatedly.
- Has always the mentoring goal in mind.
What are your thoughts about this list? Do you agree or is something important missing?