An affair that does you good

September 1, 2000

Mentoring is a way of improving staff skills that eclipses other training methods, says Jane Seaman

Once upon a time, people learned their vocation from someone older and, hopefully, wiser over a set number of years. Not only did the elder pass on knowledge and craft, but also attitudes, ideas and self-confidence. Success depended greatly on their ability and personality. A bit like mentoring, really.

Traditional master-apprentice schemes have largely disappeared. Most staff development involves a group of people with a trainer - either for a one-off course or a series of workshops or sessions. But however valuable this kind of training, when it comes to improving motivation, self-confidence and staff retention, nothing beats coaching and mentoring.

A mentor is someone who acts as your own personal guide, supporter and adviser. This might be a manager, a senior colleague from another department or even a contact in another organisation.

Whether vocational mentoring or a more holistic approach that considers the life-work balance, mentoring helps people see things in a different light. It can increase and improve self-awareness, awareness of other options and choices, transfer of knowledge and experience, communication and interpersonal skills, time management, development of insight, willingness to take risks, confidence and self-esteem, and presentation skills.

Michelle Spencer, a senior partner at training consultancy ATCS and an experienced mentor, says: "There is a great sense of reward in sharing your skills and experience with others and seeing the tangible benefits through their own development. It also makes you examine your own approaches to learning."

All staff can benefit from the support of a mentor - not just academic staff or senior management, as some organisations seem to believe. It can also cross disciplines and hierarchies, a challenging thought for academic institutions that thrive on erroneous assumptions with regard to staff ability and experience. I recall a tutor where I once worked who said she was surprised that a member of the clerical team was a published writer, because she "didn't think admin staff did things like that".

Mentoring can also help students to maximise the benefits of studying, address poor attendance and improve retention rates, something that schools have long recognised but higher education has been slower to support.

And let us not forget that mentoring is a two-way learning process that develops listening and communication skills for both parties. A mutual journey of discovery. And isn't all learning based on the joy of discovery?

So how do you find a mentor? Many successful people, particularly in the arts, refer to an inspirational tutor or lecturer who acted, consciously or unconsciously, as their mentor. But finding your own can be a hit-and-miss affair, which is why so many organisations have set up formal in-house schemes.

Successful mentoring needs careful planning, preparation, implementation and evaluation to ensure it fits seamlessly into the organisation's culture. Staff need a thorough understanding of how and why mentoring works. Ground rules and boundaries need to be established. Someone needs to be responsible for coordinating the scheme and sorting out problems. This can be a member of staff, often the personnel or human resources manager, or an external consultant.

Matching is crucial. Forcing two people to work together is rarely productive. The relationship will be influenced by context - is it a work scheme, and if so, where in the hierarchy are the mentor and mentee? Is the mentor from outside the organisation? Although age does not necessarily equal career stage, a mentee often prefers their mentor to be older. Life experience is what counts. And what about sexual dynamics? How does gender affect the relationship?

All of these factors will contribute to the chemistry of the relationship. Most importantly, mentors must have emotional maturity, no hidden agendas and commitment to being a mentor.

Lots of literature focuses on the selection of the mentor - but the mentee also has to be receptive and ready to understand the nature of the relationship and what it can offer. They should be motivated and eager to learn and want a mentor.

Similarities and differences of learning styles will affect the relationship. For instance, a mentor with an active learning style could positively influence a mentee who is more reflective or theoretical, or vice versa.

A mentee who favours visual learning methods might discover exciting learning opportunities with a kinaesthetic mentor. I have known of a strong mentor having undue influence on the mentee's spiritual outlook (or subverting it) - although this is not necessarily undesirable, it stimulates the mentee to challenge assumptions.

Some people criticise mentoring schemes for actively maintaining the status quo - particularly within large corporate organisations, where a unified culture is important for economic survival. However, a mentor and mentee with similar personalities can lead to too informal a relationship that hinders learning. Although friendship is important, if things gets too cosy and too complacent, learning can cease.

Like all relationships, mentoring usually goes through stages over time - discovery (self and mutual), consolidation and stability.

Eventually, the couple will drift apart as the relationship runs its natural course, or it will transform into a long-term friendship. From personal experience, both as mentor, mentee and running a mentoring programme, I have learnt the importance of trying not to impose structures on this process, allowing things to develop organically, allowing people to take responsibility for their relationship.

So what of the future? Virtual mentoring is the new buzzword. How will this differ from face-to-face mentoring? Will it be more removed, more objective or honest? After all, an email relationship can remove certain preconceptions, assumptions, prejudices that can occur in human interactions. And how will this assist the learning process? What about multiple and concurrent mentoring relationships? Will this add value - is more better?

Both the private and voluntary sectors have long recognised the benefits of mentoring, but there is still unexplored and untapped potential in further and higher education, particularly when applied to students. Which is ironic, because, as a learning exchange, with the right match, mentoring is hard to beat.

Jane Seaman is mentoring coordinator for TS2k (Talent and Skills 2000), an organisation that provides access to training and employment opportunities for young people who want to work in the creative industries.

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