Why do organisations struggle to really make mentoring work? Organisations expend significant resources establishing schemes involving senior leaders and junior talent. Mentoring schemes often don’t return the benefits hoped for, and yet the potential rewards are high, e.g. accelerating talent, better engagement and performance. So why is it that so many relationships begin well and then fade over time?

As initial expectations and enthusiasm are high, lively and engaged conversations are more likely, e.g. ‘let’s get to know each other.’ Then as conversational territory becomes less clear, one or both parties lose the skill (or will) to sustain effective sessions. Mentors turn into frustrated managers and coaches, perhaps as mentees don’t appear to be ‘getting it’ or ‘responding to treatment’. Other mentors lack confidence during sessions, e.g. ‘I’m not sure I actually add any value really’.

At the heart of the issue is a lack of understanding as to the true nature and intention of mentoring, to enable mentors to build successful relationships over time. Sadly, where we add a natural tendency to avoid tough conversations, e.g. ‘our mentoring relationship isn’t working is it – can we explore why?’ many potentially fulfilling relationships drift to an incomplete close, or else become tiresome or frustrating for either party.

Questions that we frequently fail to answer clearly for mentors include:

  • What is my core purpose as a mentor?
  • How is mentoring different from managing, training, coaching or consultancy?
  • Should I be telling people what to do, or offering ideas and helping them decide for themselves?
  • How do I know if the mentoring is going well?
  • What skills should I focus on, in order to be a good mentor?
  • How involved should I be in my mentees affairs/business?
  • When should I stand back, e.g. to let someone learn from mistakes?

Happily, where mentors (and mentees) are clear on the principles that underpin great mentoring, the above questions are answered, or simply disappear. This is because mentoring is defined by the nature and intention of a relationship, rather than the specific behaviours within it, e.g.

  • A mentor’s aim is to support the learning, development and progress of another person
  • Mentors use a range of methods to provide support, such as giving information, advice and practical assistance
  • Mentor’s balance their involvement in ways that empowers the mentee, for example:
    • Sometimes they are required to be a ‘wise guide’ and draw upon their own experiences to offer insight and advice
    • Sometimes they might offer to ‘do’ something for someone else, e.g. make an introduction, or review a document
    • Sometimes the mentor adopts a more detached posture, acting as a facilitator who helps the mentee to think and decide for themselves

When a mentor understands that they need to help empower an individual, they can decide what an appropriate behavioural response to a situation is. The challenge is to help managers understand who they are as a mentor, and support them to develop their own innate ability, aka, their ‘inner-mentor’.

Learn from the experts

Mentors do not need innovative methods, tools or sets of techniques. Nor does the answer lie in exhaustive lists of ‘do’s and don’ts or rule-book type guides. We simply need to return to the root of the idea; simple, powerful principles and purpose that have been around forever.

Break-through wisdom to help managers realise the essence of a mentoring relationship is around them in movies, myth and legend. Consider the question; what do Professor Dumbledore, Mary Poppins and the X-Factor judge Mel B have in common? – they are of course all mentors of some kind.

You might not always like what Mel B says or does, but her intention is clear – she passionately supports success in others. Think of Saul Berenson in Homeland as a mentor to Carrie Mathison, or the commentary of Karren Brady in The Apprentice. The wisdom of the mentor archetype helps people instinctively recognise mentors all around them.

When we give mentors clear principles and sense of purpose, they are equipped to navigate through the relationship for themselves. Consider archetypes in film and fiction and we realise that the function of a mentor is to provide appropriate assistance in situations. What defines ‘appropriate assistance’ is underpinned by a previous principle, to empower the mentee. So when a mentee asks for help applying for promotion, how involved a mentor gets is guided by that simple idea.

Utilise your past experience

Another way of building understanding is to encourage managers to consider their own experiences:

  1. During your childhood, (excluding your parents) who had a positive influence on how you see the world?
  2. In your youth, was there a particular teacher, family relation or friend who you would credit with having taught you lessons in life you are grateful for?
  3. During your career, who has had a positive influence on how you operate professionally?
  4. Who would you generally credit as being your mentors in life?
  5. What relationships do you have right now that appear to fit the criteria of mentorship, e.g. someone you respect, someone you learn from, a relationship that feels ‘personal’ in a positive way?

From these questions we begin to distil further wisdom of the archetype:

  • That our own mentors were/are fallible and imperfect, yet still able to create a positive influence in our lives
  • That the quality of benevolence is often present in any effective mentoring relationship, on behalf of the mentor towards the mentee
  • For the mentor to positively influence the mentee’s thoughts, learning and actions, the mentee must sense a healthy level of respect for them

Where we help managers innately sense what’s common to great mentors and what are simply differences in style or circumstance, we also free them up to build on their own strengths and in doing so, empower mentors themselves. It’s a virtuous circle of contribution, where both the mentor and mentee benefit from the experience.

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Julie Starr is a coach, mentor, writer and speaker. She is the founder of starrconsulting and author of The Mentoring Manual, The Coaching Manual and Brilliant Coaching, all by Prentice Hall.