Wednesday’s Wisdom is a weekly blog post about learning and leading. Like our own development journey, Wednesdays are an opportunity to assess what has come before, and to reflect on what to pursue and improve.
Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker was hit by a classic pincer movement of contrasting styles. While Obi Wan Kenobi effused a calm, at times ethereal approach towards the young Jedi, master Yoda’s training methods were blunt, often critical. His advice was direct: ‘Do or do not. There is no try’. In the Matrix, Morpheus took an enlightened tack with his charge, Neo, summarising his role with ‘all I’m offering is the truth, nothing more’. All three figures had a profound impact on their protégé through a combination of encouragement, knowledge, feedback, and truth. Optional style and aura included.
As a teenager, I would watch, or read about, mentor figures with envy, especially when preparing to experience the ‘real world’. But was it fantasy to expect someone to invest in me and help me walk the path? My favourite mentor was literary: Abbe Faria in the wonderful Count of Monte Cristo, who nurtures young Dantes (while in prison together) to become learned and shrewd, before giving him the tools to escape and find a fortune. But, unlike Dantes, I didn’t want to wait until crises hit before finding a mentor.
By definition, a mentor is a more experienced and knowledgeable person who teaches and nurtures the development of one less experienced and knowledgeable. Someone who has the know-how, wisdom, and emotional investment to guide your journey. This post explores the benefits of having and being a mentor in personal or professional scenarios; what it does not do is engage with strengths and weaknesses of formal mentor programmes at work, or occasions where you might be allocated a mentor, for example if in a new post.
What do studies say about the impact of being mentored?
Research suggests that mentoring can have a profound impact on both members of the relationship. For employees, being mentored has been cited as causing improved motivation, engagement, effectiveness in role, creativity, empowerment, and retention. In one study, 89% of those with mentors believed their colleagues valued their work, compared with 75% who did not have mentors, while 87% of mentors and mentees felt empowered by their mentoring relationships and had developed greater confidence.
Beyond emotive response, there seems to be some tangible benefits to mentoring: some research found that both mentors and mentees were approximately 20% more likely to get a raise than people who did not participate in the mentoring program. Similarly, in one study, employees who received mentoring were promoted five times more often than people who didn’t have mentors.
There is a wealth of research out there that seems to unanimously state that being part of a mentoring relationship will add value, yet Forbes have estimated that only 37% of people have a mentor figure.
My mentor experiences
Determined to improve on the dearth of mentors I had at my disposal as a young adult, I sought out guidance in my teaching career. Early on, I became Acting Head of English, and was woefully out of my depth. But I asked a friend who was a Head of English if she would talk things through with me, visit the school regularly, and help me walk the walk. This was a role-specific mentor, and one that I found useful and empowering; thanks to her, I got the job permanently. But, beyond being mentored for my individual post at school, what I really craved was a long-term guide, someone who was mentoring me, Sam, and not the particular role I held at that moment. I desired a relationship in which my adviser knew me well enough to provide input not just on my day-to-day tasks, but my long-term direction. My big picture.
It is a quest that I have had some success with; along the way, both colleagues and those outside of education have been willing to guide and mentor me. As a leader for the last few years, I’ve gained even more insight and pleasure from beginning to mentor others. I’d like to share what I’ve found valuable, and hope you can use these ideas for your own relationships, either as mentor or mentee.
My tips for having a productive mentor relationship:
- Safety in honesty
The relationship needs to be close enough so that you can speak freely and openly with one another. This means a basis of trust. But also having the transparency to give and receive honest, constructive feedback. At the outset of the relationship, it is worth establishing what you expect from one another, and right at the top should be the ability to speak as honestly as possible. If you are making some naïve choices, you want your mentor to call you on it and tell you straight.
As a coach, we often avoid the word ‘why’ due to its connotations of judgment. However, in a mentor relationship, one which includes more explicit advice, ‘why’ is probably the most powerful tool. One of my mentors has an unnerving knack of nodding along with my ideas and plans, seemingly in the affirmative. And then it comes out of nowhere: ‘So, why are you doing that?’. This question can evoke a lot of thinking from the recipient, but also emotion. I’ve felt the range from defensiveness, to vulnerability, to excitement. Sometimes we don’t pause to articulate why, but your mentor should prompt you to.
- Beyond industry
There are many occasions, such as when I was Acting Head of English, where domain-specific expertise is vital in a mentoring relationship. I needed to be told how things work and to be given specific feedback about my ideas for the department. But, in my view, it is essential to have a developmental mentor who operates outside of your industry or job role. My father-in-law, formerly a director at the global ad agency Ogilvy and Mather, asks the most fascinating questions about education and how / why we do things. His questions and suggestions don’t hit the mark every time, because he isn’t a teacher, but that’s the beauty of the relationship: his diverse perspectives help me from becoming shackled by a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality, and instead replacing them with frequent ‘hey, that could actually work’ moments.
- Anchoring Values
When you foster a close mentoring relationship, you will understand what each other’s values are. Just as you will set out your expectations of each other in the initial meeting, so should time be set aside to discuss your values, beliefs, aims, and perspectives. That way, when you’re snowed under with hundreds of jobs that pull you in different directions, your mentor will get a sense of whether or not you are making choices that are true to your values. We all evolve with experiences and age, but your mentor can be the one to anchor you to your values, questioning how your decisions align with them and reminding you of what you set out to do.
Go find your mentor!
Being in a mentoring relationship, whether you are the mentor or mentee, is a rewarding and empowering experience. As I have discussed, research suggests that you are likely to feel better about your role and development, and may even experience greater career success. But beyond those metrics, you will be part of a relationship built on trust, mutual respect and growth. This is a partnership that will reap benefits for both members over the course of years, perhaps a lifetime.
If you haven’t sought out a mentor thus far, or recently, I’d urge you to consider who you could line up to fill this position. In December, before lockdown, I contacted someone whose work I’d admired for years; we had a long walk and a coffee, I gleaned as much wisdom as I could, and now I’m hoping to make that a regular meet up or call. Reach out to those you admire – the chances are they’d be as delighted to mentor you as you would be to gain their wisdom and experience.
Ultimately, as our friend Morpheus reflects, ‘there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path’. It is still your path to walk, but having the right mentor(s) may help you take the first, second, and third steps with intent, confidence and renewed vigour.