The art of mentorship – Canadian Government Executive

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Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
June 30, 2015

The art of mentorship

9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Mentors
Stephen Kohn and Vincent O’Connell
Career Press, 222 pages, $17.50
Mentoring can be one of the most critical – as well as challenging and rewarding – tasks we undertake in the workplace. Sometimes it’s formal. Sometimes it’s informal. But always, when effective, it’s important.

While mentors must be smart about the technical aspects of what they do for a living, their effectiveness as a mentor traces to the softer side of work, emotional intelligence. “They must have emotional radar that senses what their protégé is feeling, and what they too are feeling during the guidance process. To be an effective mentor, your EQ (level of emotional intelligence) needs to be at least as high as – if not higher than – your IQ (more academic or conceptual understanding-based smarts),” Stephen Kohn and Vincent O’Connell write in 9 Powerful Practices of Really Great Mentors.

Personal trainers and yoga instructors concentrate on “the core.” Mentoring also has a core, they say: self-actualization, self-awareness-building, and becoming more naturally empathic.

Mentoring sessions are not about the meaning of life. So self-actualization in this context involves fulfillment in one’s work – what is the meaning of what the person does at work and what impact it has on those around him. Together, the protégé and mentor are looking for what would make the individual more fulfilled at work. That means, of course, understanding the protégé’s professional objectives.

John Whitmore, a management coach, wrote that “what I am aware of empowers me and what I am unaware of controls me.” In building self-awareness in the protégé, that means exploring, openly, challenges and strengths. “Emotional self-awareness is of particular importance. Mentors need to be aware of their protégé’s and their own emotional ‘temperature’ during mentoring interactions and throughout the tenure of their relationship,” they write. It’s important to understand the feelings of personal frustration with an issue that a mentee is experiencing, and share that observation to encourage the person to be more emotionally aware. As well, the mentor must be comfortable sharing their own feelings while mentoring is underway.

Steven Covey, in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, urged us to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The authors say that should be the mentor’s mantra, operating from an empathic framework. “Mentoring without seeking first to understand is not mentoring at all; it is facile advice-giving without context,” they write.

Empathy is best expressed at a slow pace. So slow down and explore issues with the mentee, rather than rushing toward the future you hope the person will achieve. Mentoring is not a quick fix. Don’t jump in immediately to express your view about how a situation could have been handled better, according to your perspective. Let the story you are writing together unfold. Be an avid listener.

That doesn’t mean being a pushover. At times the protégé will sidestep issues, unconsciously or consciously. You need to prevent such avoidance behaviours with a statement like: “It seems as if you are trying to change the topic, which means that you are not comfortable working through what we are discussing. Tell me more about why that is, from your perspective.”

With that backdrop, they outline nine essential practices:

1. Model emotional intelligence: You are being watched by the protégé and your actions will provide as much, if not more, guidance than your words. To build emotional intelligence in the individual, you must display it yourself. “When protégés observe certain behaviours and traits in their mentor that they find admirable and then link these behaviours to professional success, they will want to integrate them into their own behavioural repertoire,” they write. For emotional awareness, that involves four areas: effective self-awareness, self-management, relationship awareness, and relationship management.

2. Initially, explore intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: One of the most important things to understand – definitely to not assume you know from the get-go – is what drives the protégé. You want to start with an open slate and explore what excites the protégé about his future prospects before getting into immediate and long-term goals. Intrinsic motivation occurs when an individual acts without any obvious external rewards. “If mentoring is about accelerating the protégé up the learning curve, then mentors are far more able to support rapid learning if their protégés are intrinsically motivated to explore issues or competencies, and are excited to develop their own potential,” they write. So begin, especially if the session evolves from a formal organizational mentoring program, by asking, “Why are you here?” or “why are we here?” Another good question: “What happens at a great day at work?” Hopefully the mentee will reveal aspects of internal motivation. Extrinsic motivation is also important to understand but it is likely to be focused on specific goals.

3. Build rapport through understanding of different people styles: You need to understand how your protégé operates. The authors opt for the four styles popularized by David Merrill and Roger Reid: drivers, expressives, amiables, and analyticals. You may differ from your protégé in which style you prefer but need to be alert in dealing with him and in watching how he deals with others which is the preferred pattern.

4. Identify and pursue stretch goals: The individual is usually quite capable of progressing in their career without a mentor. The hope, however, is that the mentor will provide a quantum leap. So identify some stretch goals, and the way to get there. And don’t make the goals financial, about compensation, for example; they should be about personal and professional excellence, and the non-monetary rewards that will flow. Focusing on financial goals can lead to unethical behaviour.

5. Reinforce the importance of safeguarding credibility: An important aspect of mentoring is building character. Credibility is key – alignment of one’s words and actions. “Credibility issues may arise in mentoring discussions of how professional challenges were handled. Mentors need to confront any inconsistencies that are evident in the protégé’s words and actions,” they note. The protégé must maintain technical credibility in his field, staying informed of the latest knowledge and using good judgment in handling issues.

6. Foster strategic thinking: Usually when a mentor comes on board the individual is expecting or expected to move up in the organization, where strategic thinking will be critical rather than relying on others to develop strategy while the protégé just implements. The person needs be able to interpret complex or even conflicting data. That will start with discussions that transcend the here-and-now and look at broader, long-term issues. When the protégé is focused on the here-and-now, nudge him into strategy with questions like “what do you think this means from a longer term perspective?” or “Why have the current circumstances occurred and what are the trends to anticipate in the future?”

7. Encourage the protégé to draft an initial mentoring plan, on his own: The mentoring plan has to be developed collaboratively, not just issued by the mentor. A good starting point is having the mentee map out his own plan for discussion, revising as needed.

8. Identify and leverage teachable moments: Learning won’t generally occur unless the time is right. So a savvy mentor is alert to when you have reached a teachable moment, the situation, and the mentee’s interest and openness combining into a productive brew. “When a mentor identifies an instance when the protégé is demonstrating behaviours counter to his or her objectives, and it has caused some type of repercussions on the job, it can be valuable to use this moment to reinforce some key concepts that have anchored the mentor’s ongoing advisory and guidance approach,” they say.

9. Reinforce the value of lifelong learning: Work these days is about change. Lifelong learning is essential. Help the protégé to see the value of learning, now and in the future.

These nine practices – and the three foundational elements underpinning them of self-actualization, self-awareness-building, and becoming more naturally empathic – can help to make your mentoring more effective. The book blends practical ideas with the research and philosophical premises backing them. If mentoring is a concern, it can help provoke some rethinking of your instinctive or historic approach.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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