Mentor…the word conjures up an image of a seasoned corporate sage conversing with a naive, still “wet behind the ears” young recruit. The conversation would likely be laced with informal rules, closely guarded secrets, and “I remember back in ‘67…” stories of daredevil heroics and too-close-to-call tactics. Mentoring has had an almost heady, academic sound, solely reserved for workers in white collars whose father’s advised, “Go get to know ‘ol Charlie.”
But, what is mentoring, really? A mentor is simply someone who helps someone else learn something important. It has nothing to do with a mentoring program or rank or level in the organization. Peers mentor peers. Mentors are learning coaches…sensitive, trusted advisors.
Organizations cannot afford to rely on mentoring programs as the tool to equip people with all the competence they need. Mentoring has to be an everyday event performed by people with the skills to facilitate growth. In the words of consultant Arie De Geus, “Your ability to learn faster than your competition is your only sustainable competitive advantage.”
Creating a Partnership for Learning
Mentoring from a partnership perspective is fundamentally different from the classical “I’m the guru; you’re the greenhorn” orientation. Mentoring from a partnership perspective means “We are fellow travelers on this journey toward wisdom.” Stated differently, the greatest gift a mentor can give his or her caretaker spirit is to position that caretaker spirit as his or her mentor. However, a learning partnership does not happen, it must be created. And, the mentor must take the lead in crafting it.
The main event of mentoring entails giving learning gifts…advice, feedback, focus and support. However, such learning gifts may not be readily seen by the caretaker spirit as a desired present. Gifts, no matter how generously bestowed, may not always be experienced with glee. Recall the last time someone said to you: “Let me GIVE you some advice” or “I need to GIVE you a little feedback.” You probably did more resisting than rejoicing! Caretaker spirits are no different.
Smart mentors create a readiness for the main event of mentoring. Caretaker spirits are more likely to experience the benevolence of gifts if they are delivered in a relationship of safety, advocacy and equality. Mentoring from a partnership perspective entails four stages…1) leveling the learning field, 2) fostering acceptance and safety, 3) giving learning gifts and, 4) bolstering self-direction and independence. The first two stages are aimed at creating a readiness for the main event…gifting. The final stage is all about weaning the caretaker spirit from any dependence on the learning coach.
Stage 1: Leveling the Learning Field
The first challenge the leader as learning coach faces is to help the caretaker spirit experience the relationship as a true partnership. Leveling the learning field means stripping the relationship of any nuances of mentor power and command. It requires creating rapport or kinship and removing the mask of supremacy.
The word “rapport” comes from its French derivation which literally means “a bringing back” or “connection renewed.” The figurative translation is “kinship.” The success of a mentoring relationship can absolutely hang on the early mentor-caretaker spirit encounters; good starts impact good growth. The tone created in the first meeting can decide if the relationship will be fruitful or fraught with fear and anxiety. Quality learning will not occur until the shield has been lowered enough for the learner to take risks in front of the mentor. Rapport-building expedites shield-lowering.
Rapport begins with the sounds and sights of openness and authenticity. Any normal person approaching a potentially anxious encounter, will raise her or his antennae high in search of any clues which would give an early warning regarding the road ahead. Will this situation embarrass me? Will this person take advantage of me? Will I be able to be effective with this encounter? Is there harm awaiting me?
Given this pioneering search for signals by the caretaker spirit, it is crucial the leader as mentor be quick to transmit responses with a welcoming tone and feel. Open posture (e.g., no crossed arms), warm and enthusiastic reception, eye contact, removal of physical barriers, and personalized greetings are all gestures communicating an attempt to cultivate a level playing field. ,Mentors who rely on the artifacts of power (peering over an imposing desk, making the caretaker spirit do all the approaching, tight and closed body language, a reserved manner or facial expressions which telegraph distance) make grave errors in crafting early ease important to relationship-building.
Stage 2: Fostering Acceptance and Safety
Great leaders as mentors who are effective at fostering acceptance avoid testing tones, judgmental gestures and parental positions. Great mentors show acceptance through focused and dramatic listening. When listening is their goal, they make it THE priority. They do not let ANYTHING distract. A wise leader said “There are no individuals at work more important to your success than your associates…not your boss, not your customers, not your vendors.”
When your caretaker spirit needs you to listen, pretend you just got a gift of five minutes with your greatest hero…for me it is Abraham Lincoln.” What a great concept! Think about it! If you could have five minutes…and ONLY five minutes…with Moses, Mozart or Mother Teresa, would you let a call from your boss, your customer, or ANYONE, eat up part of that precious time? Treat your caretaker spirit with the same focus and priority.
Listening done well is complete absorption. Watch Larry King on CNN? His success as a superb interviewer lies not in his questions, but in his terrific listening skills. He zips right past the interviewee’s words, sentences and paragraphs to get to the interviewee’s message, intent, and meaning. The mission of listening is to be so crystal clear on the other person’s message that it becomes “copy and paste” execution command from one brain’s computer screen to another’s.
Caretaker spirits feel the relationship is safe when mentors demonstrate receptivity and validation of their feelings. The goal is empathetic identification. The “I am the same as you” gesture promotes kinship and closeness vital to trust. Empathy is different than sympathy. The word sympathy comes from a Greek word that means “shared suffering.” Relationship strength is not spawned by “misery loves company.” Strength comes through the “I have been there as well” type identification.
Mentors do not just listen, they listen dramatically. They demonstrate through their words and actions that the words of their caretaker spirits are valued and important. When people feel heard, they feel valued. Feeling valued, they are more likely take risks and experiment. Only through trying new steps do they grow and learn. The bottom is this…if your goal is to be a great mentor, start by using your noise management skills to help you fully use your talents as a great listener.
Stage 3: Giving Learning Gifts: Advice and Feedback
Leveling the learning field and fostering acceptance and safety are the stages that lay the groundwork for the main event: giving learning gifts. Great mentors give many gifts…support, focus, courage, affirmation. But, two crucial learning gifts are advice and feedback. We will look briefly at each, starting with advice.
Begin your advice-giving by letting the caretaker spirit know the focus or intent of your mentoring. It sounds like this: “George, I wanted to talk with you about the fact that your last quarter call rate was up, but your sales were down 20%.” For advice-giving to work it is vital you be very specific and clear in your statement. Make certain the caretaker spirit is as anxious to improve or learn as you are to see him or her improve or learn. Ask permission to give advice. This is the most important step! It can sound like: “I have some ideas on how you might improve if that would be helpful to you.” The goal is to communicate in a way that minimizes the caretaker spirit feeling controlled. State your advice in the first person singular. Phrases like “you ought to” quickly raise listener resistance! By keeping your advice in the first person singular–“what I’ve found helpful” or “what worked for me” –helps eliminate the “should’s.” The caretaker spirit will hear such advice without the internal noise of resistance.
As advice is about adding information; feedback is about filling a blind spot. And, the “blindness” factor makes caretaker spirit feedback a tricky gift! As the issue with advice is potential resistance, the issue with feedback is potential resentment. How does a mentor bestow a gift that by its basic nature reminds the caretaker spirit of his or her inability to see it? How do you fill a perceptual gap and have the recipient focus on the gift, not the gap…to focus on the filled side of a filled hole.
The leader as mentor’s goal is to assist the caretaker spirit’s receptivity for feedback by creating a climate of identification. Seek comments which have an “I’m like you…that is, not perfect or flawless” kind of message. This need not be a major production or overdone, just a sentence or two.
State the rationale for your feedback. This is not a plea for subtlety or diplomacy as much as a petition for creating a readiness for gap filling. Help the caretaker spirit gain a clear sense of why the feedback is being given. Assume you are giving YOU the feedback. We know that we more accurately hear feedback delivered in a fashion which is sensitive and unambiguous. However, there is another key dimension to effective feedback-giving. It should possess the utmost integrity. This means it is straight and honest. Frankness is not about cruelty; it is about insuring the receiver does not walk away wondering, “What did he or she NOT tell me, that I needed to hear.” Think of your goal this way: How would you deliver the feedback if you were giving YOU the feedback. Take your cue from your own preferences.
Stage 4: Bolstering Self-Direction and Independence
Effective mentoring relationships are rich, engaging and intimate. As such, ending them is not without emotion. No matter how hard we may try, there is a bitter-sweet dimension. However, healthy mentoring relationships craft separation as a tool for growth. Effective adjournment of the present mentoring relationship paves the way for effective inauguration of the next mentoring relationship.
Celebrate the relationship with fanfare and stories. Celebration need not be a big party with band and banner. Celebration can be as simple as a special meal together, a drink after work, a peaceful walk in a nearby park. The point of celebration is that it be clearly an event associated with the closure of the mentoring relationship. The rite of passage is a powerful symbol in gaining closure and moving on to the next learning plateau. Celebration should include compliments and stories. Make the celebration woven with laughter and joy. Your caretaker spirit now needs your blessing far more than your brilliance; your well-wishing more than your warnings. Avoid the temptation to lay out one last caution. Your kindest contribution will be a solid sendoff rendered with confidence, compassion and consideration. Lace your final meeting or two with opportunities to remember, reflect and refocus. Let your recall questions bridge the discussion toward the future.
As rapport building was crucial to a successful beginning of a mentoring relationship, adjournment is equally important. Letting go is rarely comfortable, but is always necessary to enable the caretaker spirit to flourish and continue to grow out of the shadow of a mentor…to become a self-directed learner. In the final analysis the upper end of growing is “grown” which implies closure and culmination. Mark the moment by managing adjournment as a visible expression of achievement and happiness.