28 07 2011

With the demise of Business Link the already growing army of individuals and companies which offer ‘mentoring’ is likely to continue growing, especially given that Business Link itself is promoting a service titled ‘MentorsMe’ as an online resource to fill the gap after their demise.

It seems a good time to ask; ‘what is a mentor?’ not least because, as the market floods, telling the good from the bad from the ugly could have vital consequences for the health of your wallet and the future of your company!

The word ‘mentor’ evolves from Greek Mythology where Mentor was Odysseus’ trusted counsellor in whose guise Athena became the guardian and teacher of Telemachus. That evolution ends with a modern meaning which can apply to an advisor, a wise man and/or a trusted counsellor.

In a business context, what does this then mean that a mentor needs to be able to provide if offering that service to you?

There are four corners, four styles of counselling that a good mentor must be able to provide and, in truth, it is unlikely that many mentors will cover all four styles in other than a very general way. This is because the styles ask for different blends of skill, knowledge and experience.

Confusingly, one of the four corners is referred to as ‘pure mentoring’ giving the impression that as long as the mentor provides this corner then they are a ‘mentor’. Even more confusingly, they are. However they are not necessarily providing sufficient mentoring to service your needs if they are not also able to cover the other three corners.

If you think of the four corners as if they are traffic lights for the mentor. One is Red, where the mentor does not want to go but, in an emergency will need to ignore the red light. Two corners are Amber, where the mentor will proceed but with caution and the fourth is Green where the mentor can proceed. However, just as with real traffic lights, they are liable to change as the mentor and mentee make their journey and so quality counsel demands the mentor be ready to adopt amber or red if called for.

Let’s start in the Green corner with what is described as ‘Pure Mentoring’.

With pure mentoring, the mentor will avoid providing the mentee with answers, instead guiding him through questioning and occasional prompts to discover the answers for himself. Knowledge is best retained when the learner is actively involved in the process hence this is (and should be) the preferred style of most mentors. It does not necessarily require an in depth knowledge of the mentee’s specialism or business; what it demands is an ability to ask the right question at the right time to encourage the mentee to identify the right direction to go in order to find the right answer. This is a very difficult skill to master consistently. It is a relationship built on (over-simplistically for purposes of an example):

  • Mentee; “I want to be better at what I do.”
  • Mentor; “How do you think the best way to go about that might be?”
  • The issue is both raised and solved by the mentee.

Of course, for someone who lacks a degree of subject matter expertise, such mentoring could be frustrating as he will lack the knowledge with which to furnish the mentors prompting with solutions, either taking him down the wrong road or simply hitting a dead end.

This is where the good mentor requires knowledge of those Amber corners. It is in these areas that the mentor needs to have some subject matter expertise (or access to it – as suggested above, it is unlikely one mentor will adequately cater for all four corners).

The first of the Amber corners is ‘Expert Advisor’. Many mentors are, in fact, expert advisors. They have a lot of knowledge in specific industries and are great at sharing it however, that knowledge can get in the way of pure mentoring as the urge is to provide answers rather than guide the mentee to them; it is human nature. Indeed, when many of us talk of needing a mentor, what we are often referring to is actually an expert advisor, a provider of simple solutions, which is not necessarily providing learning of quality.

Where the pure mentor would ask questions and cajole encouraging the mentee to discover their own solutions, the expert advisor will listen to the questions of the mentee and then provide the answers himself. Where the mentee lacks the knowledge, skills or experience to seek the answers for himself, the expert advisor comes into his own. It is a relationship built on:

  • Mentee; “This is what I need”
  • Mentor; “Here is your solution.”
  • The issue is raised by the mentee and then solved by the mentor (or expert advisor).

The second Amber corner is ‘Qualifications’. Although termed, ‘qualification’ this corner includes all study based learning. Here, it is likely that the knowledge of the mentee lags somewhat and the mentor recognising this also recognises that saying, “do this” or “try that” will not solve the problem. It then becomes encumbent on the mentor to ask and the mentee to solve. It is a relationship built on:

  • Mentor; “You lack knowledge in this area.”
  • Mentee; “I must improve my learning.”
  • The issue is raised by the mentor and the solution is provided by the mentee (by gaining the required learning).

Finally we reach the Red corner. This is where ‘Instruction’ lives. Instruction appears to be the preferred style for a significant minority of mentors where it should be a house of last resort. It is coded Red to remind the mentor that it should only be passed in emergency and then with extreme caution. Instruction is where the involvement of the mentee in any learning is reduced to the minimum, not the best way to improve learning but, on occasion, a necessity. It is a relationship built on:

  • Mentor; “This is your problem.”
  • Mentor; “And this is what you must do.”
  • The issue is both raised and solved by the mentor, the complete opposite of ‘pure mentoring’.

Mentors who can cover all four corners well are rare but that does not prevent them from being good mentors provided they know where their weaknesses lie and will refer to specialists in those areas when the time/need is right. If your mentor does not, it is time to find one who does.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2011


Twitter @cowanglobal




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