Learning From MentoringSee also: What is Coaching?
Our pages What is Mentoring? and Mentoring Skills set out an explanation of mentoring and what skills are required of a mentor.
This page explains more about the process of mentoring from a learner’s point of view. In particular, it focuses on what a learner needs to do to get the most out of a mentoring relationship, and the skills that you will need to use to manage the relationship.
At the start, it is likely that the mentoring relationship will largely be controlled by the mentor who will take responsibility for managing the process.
However, as the relationship grows and develops, you, as the learner, will probably increasingly take control to ensure that it focuses on your learning needs.
The most basic requirement is an open mind
The key skill from the learner’s point of view is to be prepared to learn. It helps to have some idea about your learning style, so that you can ask your mentor to work in a way that will help you to learn best.
You might find it helpful to have a look at our pages What is Learning? and Approaches to Learning. You may also find it useful to read about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and think about your personality type and preferences.
Choosing a Mentor
Many organisations have set up mentoring programmes in recent years, often as a way to provide training and support at low cost. This has coloured many people’s understanding of the process of mentoring and particularly of choosing a mentor.
However, mentoring does not have to be a formal process.
In their book, The Squiggly Career, Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis define a mentor as “someone who provides you with insight, advice and ideas that help you to learn and grow.”
Using this definition, it is clear that mentors may come from many places, and certainly do not only arrive in your life as part of a formal process, mediated by your employer. It should be equally clear that they are not only people who are senior to you or have been in the organisation a long time.
A mentor is anyone from whom you seek insight, advice or ideas to support your learning.
It might therefore be someone with whom you have been matched by your organisation. However, it might also be someone you manage who has skills that you would like to develop—or indeed someone that you don’t know, but who you have encountered on social media and with whom you would like a conversation. It could also be a ‘friend of a friend’, or more likely a connection of a colleague or former colleague.
Whatever the process, choosing a mentor needs to be a positive and active process, focused on what you want to achieve, and how best to achieve it.
When you are looking for a potential mentor, don’t discard anyone because they aren’t quite what you were expecting.
A potential mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be someone senior to you. They could be at your level, or even below, but much better than you at particular skills.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about whether mentoring relationships work best with similar people or complementary types. The important issue is whether it works for you and your mentor.
Approaching potential mentors
Should you approach someone formally and ask them to act as your mentor?
In the absence of a formal mentoring programme within your organisation, the answer is probably no.
Why? Because it’s a big commitment—or at least it is seen that way. People are often reluctant to accept that kind of open-ended commitment.
Instead, ask for a conversation about [insert topic], or to pick their brains about a particular skill that you would like to develop. Be as specific as you can about why you would like to speak to them, and what you want to get out of the conversation. Also ask them to suggest other people that you might talk to.
This might turn out to be a one-off conversation, but it might also turn into a longer-term relationship.
What if they say no? It’s probably not personal. Find someone else to ask.
What Do You Want To Achieve?
You will also find it helpful to think through what you want to learn from the mentoring relationship.
The best way to do this is to start broadly, by thinking about questions such as:
What interests me?
Where do I want to go?
What do I need to learn in order to move in this direction?
You may also find it useful to think about whether you want your mentoring relationship to focus on a wider area, such as your career within the organisation, or your skills development with a view to a change in career, or something narrower such as the way that you are managing a particular project or task. This will help you think about how long you want the relationship to last.
A personal SWOT analysis can help you to identify areas of weakness and a potential focus for the mentoring relationship. This can also usefully feed into your choice of mentor, and whether you want someone who will complement your areas of weakness or someone who is generally quite like you and will understand where you struggle.
A Personal SWOT Analysis
This will look at your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, and help you to identify the focus for your learning:
Strengths include your skills, experience, talents, qualifications, and personal qualities.
Weaknesses are any aspects of these in which you believe you have a deficit that is affecting you in your work.
Opportunities are possibilities in your environment, such as career opportunities, new projects coming up, time and space and opportunities for learning and development.
Threats are the factors in your environment that might limit you or hold you back.
See our page: Personal SWOT Analysis for more information.
Skills To Use During The Mentoring Relationship
Learners will benefit from developing their emotional intelligence to understand their own feelings and emotions as well as those of others around them - such as their mentor. This will help you to get the most out of the mentoring relationship.
Developing your ability to reflect on your learning will also be helpful, and will be supported by an end-of-session review process with your mentor. If you don’t already use reflective practice routinely, then it can feel like a slightly odd process but it is well worth pursuing. It may be something that your mentor could help you to develop, by using it with you during the sessions to help you reflect on issues at work and what you have learned from them.
You may need to give and receive feedback. This may be particularly difficult if the relationship is not working as well as you had hoped and you need to give feedback about the way that your mentor is working. Think of it as a learning opportunity and it will be much easier to approach.
A Final Word of Warning - Not all mentoring relationships work.
With the best will in the world, some mentoring relationships are much more productive than others, and others work best at specific times or for a short period.
It is often not possible to know in advance which will work best, or how long a productive relationship will last, because such relationships depend very much on the dynamics between partners.
It’s hard but as a learner if the relationship is not working, and you don’t feel that you’re getting what you want out of it, then sometimes the best thing to do is to cut your losses. Under these circumstances, you need to be honest that it’s just not working for you and you’d rather find another mentor.
Much better that than wasting your own and your mentor’s time any more.