Can I has…a Mentor?
The mentor and coach relationship – what’s with that anyway?
One of the more common concepts reoccurring in today’s business world relates to the propriety of a coach and mentors. If the organisation identifies your potential, rather than send you on a myriad of development workshops that mean very little at the end of the day, they give you the opportunity to select a coach who will hopefully bring out the best in you. Also, let’s mention the fact that coaches can often be much cheaper than all of those meaningless day-only development opportunities. But also a part of one’s standing in an organisation or profession are the brag-rights surrounding “mentors”. What are these things and can you eat them?
Jokes aside, a mentor is meant to be a very valuable source of knowledge, experience, and expertise. While one may be limited to just a single coach, there is no limit to the number of mentors one can collect. The discerning factor of a mentor/coach relationship essentially lies in the dual nature of the relationship – ie: what each party gets out of it. A coach is contracted in for a set period of time and often receives remuneration for each contact session with the coachee. There are set expectations, boundaries, and goals of performance for both parties. The coach’s duty is to ensure that the coachee begins to actualise his/her potential, or to give strategies and avenues to pursue greater heights and unlock unforeseen achievements. Most importantly, the role of the coach expires over time. The coachee, at some point or other, has to acknowledge that they can no longer get anything out of this person. They have outgrown the methodologies, they have inseminated into their being the thought processes, and they have outmanoeuvred the advanced instructions that the coach would inevitably give. In short, they have surpassed whatever the coach could do for them – they are already doing it for themselves.
In such a scenario, the individual then has to distinguish whether or not he/she still needs a coach – if yes, a new coach needs to be found; if no, they step away from the relationship confident in the new skills or expertise achieved. The coach, in the mean time, breaks away from the relationship knowing that a job “got done” – whatever that job was meant to be. Actually, it is very difficult to differentiate a “good” versus “bad” coach; often the excuse is laid in the hands of the common “there was no chemistry” excuse. The coach’s methods weren’t working, or there wasn’t enough engagement at the level needed, or the coach didn’t “speak the language” needed. The process of selecting a coach is often akin to speed dating – the coaches roll in on a conveyer belt of “next please” until you experience a spark of relating that means something subliminally. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the coaching forums in countries bring out their own tinder-swipe-me-left system for executive coaches soon enough.
A mentor, on the other hand, is different. I have some friends and colleagues who can meet a person and immediately formulate the mentorship relationship, but essentially the relationship is a bit deeper than that. While a coach has experience and expertise and all the rest of it, a mentor has that and something a little bit more – they have an underlying respect from you, they have a social and work standard that is impressive to explore, they have flaws that they are willing to share with you, they have their own dreams and aspirations that they will encourage you to imagine with them, and most importantly they have the patience to listen to your own sorry tales and give advice on those.
So yes, you can “catch ‘em all” and try and have as many mentors as you’d like. Superficial relationships can work as well when the point of your mentor is to be a source of knowledge and expertise that you can tap into. But remember that this is a two-way relationship defined by something other than monetary value shifting hands. So if you have superficial mentor relationships, be sure to keep in mind that someday they will ask for the favour to be returned…somehow. And that gives an ethical dilemma in itself. You cannot just use a person’s mind like that. We cannot treat others like intellectual whores.
Meaning the relationship needs to have a few core elements to it so that both parties feel valued and treasure the relationship over time. This is not something that just stops – there is no contract to dictate the methods of engagement. The level of communication could be randomly dispersed over months, using multitudes of channels ranging from phone calls to dropped emails to instant messaging. In today’s technological age, messages through any medium could be expected (so long as, if its social media related like twitter, a personal touch is adhered to – remember, you are both professionals and the relationship should in no way tarnish the reputation or brand image portrayed).
So what are these core elements? I have always considered myself un-mentor-able. In the same sense I have always believed that I am un-coachable as well. I’m too much of a challenge – too hasty to debate and pull apart issues – too quick to jump to the worst possible conclusion – too eager to identify the pitfalls and challenges – too strong to admit that I may need anyone at all to help me get anywhere. But this is a very old-fashioned view of what mentors and coaches are in the world of work. In fact, I’d like to dispute that having a mentor or a coach is a very tiring and difficult thing, hardly aimed at “helping” at all. Actually, having sat in on a few coaching sessions provided by a highly astute and experienced coach, made me realise that coaches push the boundaries and force the questions that one is too scared to acknowledge because maybe…just maybe…you could be better with them than you are by yourself. And as such, I forced myself to look at this predetermined idea in my head that I can never have a coach or a mentor, and forced myself to identify – at the very least – what I would be comfortable with to have a mentor.
Firstly, it is not just a matter of “having” one. Once you have it, what do you do with it? How does the relationship progress from there? Does the relationship change at all, now that a label has been put on it, or was it always like that to begin with? And what are the general codes of interaction that one can embark upon? What is pushing the boundary, and what is blurring the line, and what is breaking the relationship?
For everyone, mentors mean something different. For some, they like to have a mentor as a source to tap into for experience and knowledge. For others, a mentor holds a deeper level of engagement related to a confidant and advice distributor. To keep things succinct, I’ve identified my five core mentor requirements, which let me know subliminally if I’m speaking with someone who I actually believe to be mentor worthy.
I have to feel a lot of respect for what this person, as my mentor, has done and gone through. I need to acknowledge that I can learn from this person and be privy to perspectives that I may not agree with, but can at least respect for the foundation that created them.
Flowing communication. There is nothing worse than a staggered conversation with little give-and-take from both sides. Actually, perhaps worse is a conversation that is entirely one-sided and solely representing one party’s perspective. It is just as much about listening as talking.
I do not believe in a mentorship relationship where the mentor does not appreciate the mentoree. Never mind the fact that the mentoree probably looks up to the mentor, it is also a matter of keeping one’s ego in check and managing a persona of humbleness. Appreciate the fact that someone appreciates what you have done in life – enough so that they are eager to know more from you and maintain that relationship until they can, in some way, repay your kindness.
As a mentor, you are the living biography of yourself. Be true to yourself – afterall, that is what the mentoree was attracted to in the first place. And if the mentoree has some warped idea of reality, then help set them straight as to your character. Sincerity also relates to letting the mentoree know when and how they can engage with you and on what level. If they have to refer to you as “master”, that might create some hesitation in the willingness to communicate with you, but if you have certain topics that you would more freely allow communication of, let them know what those are.
Initiated engagement. The mentoree does not want to feel as if they are continuously barking up the mentor’s tree. They want the mentor to be as interested in their performance as they are in the mentor’s progression. It is a two-way relationship built on a deep-set loyalty that has nothing to do with organisational expectations, performance reviews, or tangible value exchanges.
Considering my five core elements of a mentor relationship, it is no wonder I have never engaged in one – they are high standards for anyone to live by. What I like about these five is that it does not restrict the characterisation of the mentor to any physical boundaries. That is, a mentor could be twenty or seventy, an intern or a CEO, well connected or a hermit living off of avocados and orange peels, or even a person as confused as myself in my own profession. So long as I feel I can respect his/her level of expertise or knowledge foundation of a topic, then I could respect them enough to be a mentor in that particular thing. And in so doing, I may be able to impart some of my own knowledge and expertise – and one day find out that I never was the mentoree. I was actually the mentor.
* * *
Wonderwhiterabbit hopping off
* * *