What is mentoring?

Mentoring is a growth-focused relationship wherein two people, a mentor and a mentee, cooperate to pursue the development goals of the mentee in an area where the mentor has some knowledge and experience.

All mentoring has several essential components:

  • Mentor – individual with knowledge, experience and skill in an area of interest to the mentee.
  • Mentee – individual seeking knowledge, experience and skill in an area known to the mentor.
  • A willingness of both parties to cooperate together.
The process typically includes:Active observation of the mentor by the mentee
  • Conversation between the two, with the mentee asking questions and the mentor offering instruction, observations, and comments.
  • Observation of the mentee’s practice
  • Conversation between the two
  • The process repeats and continues. As the mentee gains increasing confidence and independence in certain areas, they may move to greater depths in the same area or address other areas of knowledge and skill.

Mentoring can apply to almost any area of desired competency, from work to hobbies to relationships to physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.

In situations where no mentor is nearby, mentoring can be done over a distance using various communication technologies. One can, as a mentee, also enter a mentoring relationship with an individual through her/his writings or other works. At times people have even undertaken to write a book specifically for the purpose of mentoring those they may never meet. A good example of this is: Alan Dershowitz’s Letters to a Young Lawyer, from the series Art of Mentoring by Basic Books. Obviously he does not have time to mentor all those who might want or warrant his support, so he has put down the things he would say in such a relationship.

Why is mentoring important / valuable?

Mentoring is an opportunity to teach/lead in a relational way, modeling, discussing, observing, and empowering the other to use the gained knowledge and skills. Grounded in real, often shared, practice, mentoring accelerates learning with near instant feedback and opportunity to make adjustments. Mentoring also provides the added benefit of learning from the mistakes of others ‘in the moment’. When working with a mentor, you have the ability to hear real life stories spoken into your own setting and then dialogue about the application of those stories. The mentor is able to say, “Well, in my experience… ” and give voice to history and memory and insight, while allowing the mentee freedom in conversation to choose her own path. The mentor may at times serve as a confidant with whom the mentee explores frustrations and seeks clarity and resolution. Mentoring often continues to deepen learning that begins in more formal didactic learning settings, such as lectures and readings may provide.

Mentoring yourself

While typically not sufficient, self-mentoring is a valuable process bringing together a variety of skills. If you identify an area where you wish to grow and set goals to do so, pursue learning and experience, reflect upon those, and then set goals for future growth, you are self-mentoring. We do this throughout our lives and can develop capacities to do so with increasing effectiveness. The ‘self-help’ industries were built on this reality. However, many have found that self-mentoring does not take them as far as they hope to go.

Preparing yourself for a mentor

If you want to work with a mentor, you owe yourself and your mentor the effort of ensuring that you are truly ready for the experience. Don’t waste another’s time until you are prepared to be mentored. So, consider the following:

Qualities that help make you a good mentee:

  • Be teachable, humble, open, hungry to learn
  • Trust your mentor, yourself, and the process. Be willing to try new things, take risks
  • Be trustworthy. Do what you say. Say what you mean. Repent when you err.
  • Believe that you also have something to offer
  • Be willing to work hard
  • Take responsibility for your own growth – the mentor is not your parent
  • Realize that there are things you can’t fully understand until after you experience and reflect upon them
  • Cut yourself and others some slack – give the benefit of the doubt
  • When in doubt, ask

Finding a Mentor

The next step is finding a mentor – someone who has skill and experience in the desired area(s), plus the ability and willingness to share and be a mentor to others. Be sure that these are all present. This author had some very painful experiences working with people who had skill and experience to share, but lacked any inclination to help others learn. Once you find that person, clearly identify what it is you want and ask if they are willing to be your mentor. It may take a few conversations to flesh out the terms of this arrangement until a shared understanding of expectations exists. Some things to ask include:

  • Have you ever had a mentor from whom you learned? If so, would you please describe for me that relationship and what you learned in it?
  • Have you ever mentored someone? If so, would you please describe for me that relationship and what you learned in it?
  • What are some important things that you think you have to teach another?
  • In what ways do you think you could contribute to my growth?
  • How much time do you have to give to this relationship and in what ways?
  • What would you ask in return? What do you hope to receive from the relationship?

If the answers to these questions, and the conversation around them, aligns with your hopes and goals, then this may be a good mentor for you.

It is suggested that you begin with some short defined time – say three months of meeting weekly. Then at the end of that time you can both evaluate the arrangement and decide to continue as is, make adjustments, or end the arrangement. Having this conversation up front helps reduce stress and tension if things don’t work out.

Mentoring others

Do you have something to offer to another’s growth, a desire to help, and a willingness to spend time demonstrating and dialoguing about your area of interest? If so, then you can be a mentor. A popular axiom states, “One learns best by teaching others.” This certainly applies to mentoring. If you want to grow in a particular area, one of the best things you can do is mentor another. You do not need to be an expert, but just a little farther along. A mentor need not be a master teacher qualified to write curriculum or books and speak on a given topic at conferences. You are a mentor if you have some knowledge, experience, and skill in an area of interest to others, and you invite them to learn from you one-on-one.

Finding someone to mentor

Finding a mentee is much like finding a mentor, only in reverse. You need to be sure you have the qualifications of a mentor, and then you look for someone with the qualities of a good mentee. Decide what you will and won’t do, how much time you have to give, and set clear boundaries for your relationship. You do not have to let someone into every area of your life in order to be a good mentor to that person. In fact, some find that the more complex the relationship becomes, adding elements of such as peer friendship, the more difficult it may become to accomplish the mentoring work.

Next Steps

Once the mentoring relationship has been established and shared understanding exists as to expectations and boundaries, then the mentoring work can continue. In truth, it has already begun, as this preparatory work includes vital learnings about relationships. From here, several next steps help set the groundwork.

  • Agree on the focus of learning.
    • What goals do you both bring?
    • What does the mentee hope to learn and the mentor hope to teach?
  • Agree on some initial ways to work together.
    • Will the mentee ‘shadow’ the mentor at the given tasks to observe?
    • When, Where, and How often will you meet to reflect on these experiences and the other learnings that accompany them?
    • What other resources can be brought into the learning relationship?

Creating a culture of mentoring

Once you realize how rewarding the mentoring process can be, you may wish more people around you were benefitting from a similar experience. Regardless of the setting – business, non-profit, faith community, civic or interest group – you can explore ways to create a mentor-friendly culture. You have already taken the first step by learning about mentoring and having a rewarding experience about which you can speak to others. There are other things which nurture a good environment for mentoring.

  • Share your story – How has mentoring impacted you? How have you grown in areas that are important to others? What pitfalls have you encountered and how were they handled to provide additional growth opportunities?
  • Get buy in from others – others in the organization may need to allow/affirm/support the mentoring process. Mentoring shifts focus, time, and energy away from other priorities. It pays huge dividends when done well, but the rewards may be delayed, so people need to be willing to make the journey, or at least allow others to do so. There are at least three groups of stakeholders whose support should be considered – supervisors, peers, and direct-reports of the mentors and the mentees. People need to understand how to interpret what they see – observing others work, and conversation about the work, may seem like wasted time to some. Give folks sufficient time to become accustomed to these new ways of thinking and working.
  • Develop a system – what kinds of structures and habits will need to be implemented? Are new working/reporting relationships required? How are mentors paired with mentees? What happens if the relationship is not rewarding for one or both? What kind of ongoing training and feedback will keep the mentoring culture healthy?
  • Offer support and training – As part of the system, what initial training will you offer so mentors and mentees begin well? How frequently will they need additional training, and in what formats

What’s the impact of mentoring on the mentor?

When walking together down paths oft trod alone,

new features come into view that never were noticed before.

Mentoring provides –

  • the opportunity to see the journey through another’s eyes,
  • the challenge to reexamine one’s experience over time
  • the privilege of new learning in familiar territory

In teaching others, and sharing our experience, we refine our own understandings of situations and ideas. In an effort to articulate the heretofore unspoken to another, and in receiving shared insights, new clarity emerges. There is a mutuality in mentoring that is distinct from other helping/teaching roles (counseling, coaching, spiritual direction). This facet brings blessings, while presenting some potential anxiety due to the inherent vulnerability. This vulnerability, of course, is an essential prerequisite for true growth.

1 thought on “What is mentoring?

  1. Pingback: Contextual Leadership Formation | Ken G Crawford ~ Coaching

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