Making the most of a mentor

During Andy Murray’s disastrous loss at the Australian Open final last week Boris Becker said that what the young Scot needed was a mentor. Mentoring is increasingly common in the world of business, but is often done badly. But what is the big idea? And how do you get the most out of a mentor? We asked mentoring guru Sally Bibb

Great mentoring can help you to grow and learn fast. However, so many company mentoring schemes don’t deliver what they could to mentees. Often mentors aren’t sure what they are supposed to do, they are not that interested and see it as a chore, mentors and mentees are ill-matched. It feels like a “process” rather than a relationship with rich learning potential.

I worked with one client recently that had a slick-looking scheme which was run by HR. When I spoke to mentors and mentees most said it didn’t work because they were matched with the wrong person, felt obliged to do it, hadn’t got time and so on. However many of the same people had got their own mentors and that was working well for them.

A good mentor is one with a passion for helping others reach their potential. They are supportive, trustworthy and encouraging. Their motivation is to help the mentee to learn and build their skills rather than to demonstrate their own skills and prowess.

An example of a mentoring relationship is a young consultant whose mentor is a partner of a law firm. They were matched by someone who knew them both, believed that the partner could help the young consultant at this particular stage in his career and thought they would like each other.

The first meeting was a no-obligation chat over a coffee where they found out about each other. They established that the mentor was experienced in the sort of issues that the mentee wanted help with.

And, importantly, they both felt that they would enjoy working with the other. Their first mentoring session covered a big pitch that the consultant was making. He talked about his preparations to date and his plans for the pitch. His mentor who had a great deal of experience leading pitches talked about some issues that the mentee hadn’t considered.

Some companies use in-house mentors, others encourage their employees to find external mentors. The key is to find someone who has the skills and motivation to be a mentor.

So how do you get the most out of a mentor-mentee relationship? Firstly, the mentor and mentee are well matched and choose each other rather than be foisted on each other. Secondly, trust and confidentiality are important so that the mentee is able to talk about anything they like and the mentee has to feel they can be open and honest with their mentor and ask the “dumb” questions when necessary.

Thirdly, they keep up the momentum by meeting face-to-face or online every few weeks. Fourth, each mentoring session has a clear goal. And fifthly, they agree up front to do a certain number of sessions and then review whether to continue. This keeps both people focused on achieving what they need to achieve within a time-limit.

Sally Bibb is the author of The Right Thing: An Everyday Guide to Ethics in Business and co-founder of talentsmoothie, an organisational change consultancy.