Who Mentors the Mentors?

Posted by Phil on May 25, 2018

In any role there comes a point where inspiration, self-awareness and personal growth plateaus or strikes some sort of obstacle. There are a number of remedies or approaches to get past these blocks and one such example is a mentor.

Mentoring isn't simply answering a few questions or being open to interruptions to ask about a coding problem that's blocking you. There's a more formal arrangement in place: a working relationship that often carries an implicit social contract or "life span" until an agreed professional development outcome is achieved. It requires an investment on the part of both parties. And - milking the financial metaphor a little more - any investment implies some form of transaction of value. The person being mentored gains insight, experience and guidance on topics that are important to them, and the mentor gains experience in working with different people, leadership and (hopefully) empathy.

Not everyone can put their finger on what made a mentoring relationship successful when asked. Also, the very definition of "mentoring" is distinct from concepts such as "coaching" or "sponsorship". Mentoring informs based on experience and objective insights so that a person can make more informed choices about personal outcomes. Coaching on the other hand is more typically helping someone on a specific task, behaviour or concrete goal by providing input and feedback on specific patterns. Mentoring is (or at least, should be) a neutral relationship where there is an implicit trust in the mentor's experience and advice. It's a structured, personal approach to imparting advice and experience.

So mentoring is not for everyone. It's about a journey. You need to be patient; you need to be a teacher; you need to be aware of and honest about your own shortcomings. There needs to be a positive culture of learning, whether that's within the organisation context or just the mentoring relationship. Be aware of impostor syndrome and self doubts: there needs to be a safe and honest communication dynamic.

A mentor arrangement or structure should not be for a management / direct report dynamic. Management or leadership are entirely different concepts but they are often conflated with performance coaching and mentoring. There is a power dynamic in place that is impossible to separate and the trust and safety required for the "mentee" to openly discuss their vulnerabilities or mistakes cannot be confidently built. That's not to say leaders or managers are absolved from mentoring their team; that's absolutely not the case. Rather, setting the right examples is an informal structure and an integral part of being an effective leader. A more formal mentoring arrangement needs to be "called" once it's clear the two parties need something more structured.

So when people are being promoted on technical merit or have years of experience in a particular role, how are they being supported to become better leaders? What do we do - as an industry - to develop that same degree of empathy, awareness, patience and communication skills in our potential mentors? We see it a lot. Too often companies promote employees into a leadership position and expect them to perform without actively working with them to meet their new responsibilities.

If we're serious about wanting our people to perform at their best and creating an environment where they can succeed, then the theory is (or should be) well known. To paraphrase from a few of Deming's "14 Points":

  • Use training on the job:
    • Build a foundation of common knowledge.
    • Encourage staff to learn from one another, and provide a culture and environment for effective teamwork.
  • Implement leadership:
    • Don't simply supervise – provide support and resources.
    • Emphasize the importance of participative management and transformational leadership.
    • Don't just focus on meeting targets and quotas.
  • Eliminate fear:
    • Ensure people aren't afraid to express ideas or concerns.
    • Let everyone know that the goal is to achieve high quality by doing more things right – and that you're not interested in blaming people when mistakes happen.
    • Ensure that your leaders are approachable and that they work with teams to act in the company's best interests.
    • Use open and honest communication to remove fear from the organization.

That's the theory around setting up a strong team leadership dynamic, but how do we get from there to "true" mentorship? One approach might be to find ways to identify good mentors; another might be to find ways in which to train good mentors.

Generally the criteria for valuable mentoring insight comes back to failure. Failure is the greatest teacher of lessons for the future. Failure and an ability to learn informs the experience and judgement of the potential mentor. Failure and not learning pretty clearly suggests this person is not ready yet.

So how do you have the actual conversations around mentoring? How do we encourage people to strengthen those skills?

Speaking with participants at this year's Codemania conference, one approach was to require the mentored person to bring three problems or discussion points to each meeting. Allowing time to address specific challenges or concerns means the relationship is more immediately constructive. Talking with people in other, unrelated industries helps identify ideas or perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked or invisible due to assumptions or inherent biases.

The key underlying requirement is a strong "EQ". Having the trust and honest context for the sorts of confronting or challenging questions means that sometimes a logical deduction will lead to an emotional reaction. This means that people need to be prepared to have their assumptions challenged and that any advice or insight given is not personal when it comes from a place of caring and wanting each other to succeed.

The outcome is ultimately personal growth. It feels good to see people succeed and knowing that we've had some part to play in that. Providing personal insight from a position of kindness is the best first step toward succeeding at both mentoring and being mentored.



Photo Credit

Aron Visuals