Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions
Dear Coach,
About a year ago the HR group in our company introduced a mentoring program. I believe it’s well regarded since top management talk about it from time to time and everyone who is upwardly mobile is deep into it.
I’ve been given the opportunity to have a corporate mentor recently and I’m not sure what to expect; further, I really don’t know the person who is designated as my mentor (I didn’t get to choose) and I’m concerned that it won’t work as intended. What should I do?

The benefits of mentoring are well known in terms of expected outcomes – giving less-experienced people valuable feedback, support, insight and guidance in critical areas; passing on ‘wisdom’ and sharing perspectives on institutional and industry happenings.

On the other hand, sometimes it seems as if mentoring is simply a symbolic practice that substitutes for the lack of real apprenticeship opportunities that were lost as organizations flattened themselves while eliminating many of the middle-management positions in the name of improving margins.

The apprentice process was always informal and intensely personal and its big advantage was that people learned from experience – both their own as well as that of their supervisor(s). This is what the mentorship programs are seeking to achieve, but it cannot happen if the processes followed are ritualistic and sparse.

The intended benefits are obvious but what’s not so clear is which processes will work and which are relatively useless. To begin on the right foot, there has to be a focused objective, not just for the program as a whole but for each application.

Generally, although the roles of mentoring and coaching have certain similarities, mentoring is concerned about what happens – defining the critical decisions that need to be made; establishing relative merit on available options and their consequences; evaluating the pros and cons of strategies; generating needed self insight, etc. It is not about how for this is the proper domain of the coach whose role is to enhance, encourage and support changes in thinking processes and practices.

It’s been argued that an effective mentor will offer input in seven key areas, namely:
  • Setting up and managing the mentoring relationship – assessing the match and the readiness and interest of those involved; building confidence and trust, setting agenda and standards and keeping the process on track
  • Offering sponsorships – selecting opportunities, making contacts and introductions, creating networks and advocating on relevant issues
  • Monitoring progress – raising awareness on appropriate opportunities and threats, defining needed alliances and resources to ensure intended outcomes, identifying, encouraging and reinforcing successes along the way
  • Acting as confidant – serving as a sounding board, personal advisor and counsellor, sharing professional and life experiences to add depth, testing and proving values-in –action, recommending the application of standards and safeguards
  • Pathfinding – assisting with the exploration and selection of alternatives, assessing ethical conundrums and evaluating risk and significance especially in interpersonal arenas
  • Role modelling – setting a clear example of best and considered practices, demonstrating values and principles, refining and clarifying perspectives and perceptions
  • Vitality and Inspiration – energizing action, assessing initiatives and supporting experimentation and development, aligning action with professed goals and standards.
Not all mentors offer all services and place the same emphasis on those they do offer. The first contact therefore should focus on an appropriate objective, the scope of the relationship (see above) and the time involvements. Since unqualified trust is a prerequisite for success there has to be frankness and openness from the very beginning.

While comfort in the relationship is most desirable, it’s possible to become too comfortable and thereby ineffective. This can be countered by a periodic review process and also by sharing the load between three-to-five mentors over time.

I recommend a three-phased insertion –
  1. Explore the precise objectives of the relationship in terms of expected outcomes (meeting 1)
  2. Discuss thoroughly and reach consensus on the offerings that will support the objectives together with time requirements and methods of interaction - meetings; emails, telephone calls, etc. (meetings 2 and 3)
  3.  Implement with a dedicated review of objectives and offerings every 10-12 sessions.
You have an exciting opportunity but it will require heightened self awareness and increasing self direction over time; it’s one benefit that should not last forever.

I hope this helps.