Experience shared: Working with a mentor

Published: Tuesday, 04 September 2018
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In this follow-up article to ‘Experience shared: Effective mentoring’, Steve Burnage explores the professional development potential of a productive and focused mentoring relationship from the perspective of the mentee.

Summary

  • Engaging in a positive and productive relationship with a mentor can be a rewarding and effective personal development too.
  • For the mentoring relationship to be successful, there must be clear roles and responsibilities and a working partnership of collaboration.
  • The GROW model can help focus mentoring conversations.
  • The five-step improvement model is a useful tool to bring about change through mentoring.
  • Working with a mentor can further your professional development or the knowledge, skills and understanding required for your current role or a new one. A mentor can guide you, take you under their wing and teach you new skills.

A key feature that helps mentoring relationships to succeed and be satisfying for both parties is when both the mentor and the person being mentored take an active role in developing the relationship. In the article ‘Experience shared: Effective mentoring’ we met Safia – a team member well placed to gain a lot from a positive mentoring relationship.

Safia is a new member of the team. She is eager to do a good job and, with careful guidance, completes all tasks to the best of her ability. She doesn’t have a breadth of skills, knowledge or experience yet but she is eager to please. Safia has low capability but high commitment.

So, what can Safia do to ensure that she gets the best from a professional relationship with her mentor?

Collaborate to solve problems

Perhaps the best outcome from Safia building a positive working relationship with her mentor is that it can quickly foster a true sense of collaboration, build strong learning partnerships and lead to active, creative and productive teams both within school and beyond.

Safia can work with her mentor to be collaborative in solving problems. A good mentor will enable her to identify concerns and potential solutions; they will encourage her to take risks and do things differently by implementing creative solutions.

Safia can encourage her mentor to work collaboratively to:

  • identify specific concerns
  • brainstorm possible solutions: the mentor can offer ideas, but you need to choose your plan to put into action
  • select a plan to try, and discuss desired outcomes
  • implement the plan: the mentor should be supportive and encouraging, and reinforce successful completion of the plan
  • assess the outcome together: the mentor and mentee should be reflective and discuss the effectiveness of the activity and adjust as needed
  • try another solution, if necessary: it is important for mentors to remember that there are many ways to address an issue and that their way may not be the most effective solution for the mentee
  • celebrate successful results.

A template for this model is provided in the toolkit. A simpler way of looking at this collaborative mentoring process can be summarised as a five-step improvement model, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Five-step improvement model diagram

p38 diagram

The benefits of working with a mentor

There are many benefits to successful mentoring relationships.

  • You can learn and grow under the mentor's guidance.
  • You can experiment with creative solutions to problems within a safe and supportive environment.
  • You become stronger and more intentional in you own professional practice.

Conclusion

Mentoring is an effective method of helping less experienced individuals like Safia to develop and progress in her profession. The keys to establishing a successful mentoring relationship include creating a relationship of trust, clearly defining roles and responsibilities, establishing short- and long-term goals, using open and supportive communication, and collaboratively solving problems.

10 tips for a positive and productive mentoring relationship

1. Be clear about why you want a mentor and why you are meeting

Define what type of help you are looking for in a mentor. Are you looking for someone with similar skills or someone with a very different skill set? Are you looking for someone more senior than you who can advise you on the next steps up the career ladder, or someone who is working at a similar level in school, but perhaps with a different skill set?

Being clear about why you want a mentor will help you focus on the outcomes you desire and will ensure that both you and the mentor benefit from a productive relationship and don’t waste each other’s time.

2. Establish goals for the relationship

Discuss and agree upon the goals of the relationship and what you, personally, are doing to make it a successful venture. Review these goals from time to time to be sure that the relationship is working; if not, adjust and refocus.

In setting your goals, you might consider using the GROW model:

  • Goal
  • current Reality
  • Options (or Obstacles)
  • Will (or Way forward).

The model was originally developed in the 1980s by business coaches Graham Alexander, Alan Fine and Sir John Whitmore.

A good way of thinking about the GROW model is to consider how you would plan a journey. First, you decide where you are going (the goal), and establish where you currently are (your current reality).

You then explore various routes (the options) to your destination. In the final step, establishing the will, you ensure that you are committed to making the journey, and are prepared for the obstacles you might meet on the way.

There is a GROW toolkit to accompany this article which can be used as a planning template for a mentoring session.

Of course, there are other models that can help you set goals in preparation for your conversations with your mentor, but the GROW model is perhaps the simplest and is very effective.

3. Be pro-active in choosing a mentor

Once you have decided on the type of mentor you need, be proactive in identifying the best person for the role. Some organisations assume that your line manager will automatically be your mentor. While this can work, it is often better if your chosen mentor is someone other than your direct supervisor. Generally, if the desired outcome of your mentoring is general career or personal development, a colleague from a completely different area of school life can bring a fresh and interesting perspective to something that might be all too familiar to you. A stranger often causes us to question and ask ‘why’ when we haven’t asked ourselves the question before.

4. Establish communication methods and frequency of contact from the beginning

Talk with your mentor to determine the lines of communication that will work for both of you. Will you meet face to face or com-municate mainly through email and the telephone? Make sure you meet/talk enough to suit both of you.

5. Manage expectations and build trust

Mentoring takes time and implies sacrifices for both the person being mentored and the mentor. Be respectful of your mentor’s time and avoid any trust-breaking behaviours such as cancelling appointments or not following through on any action points that you agree with your mentor.

6. Define roles and responsibilities

Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of both the mentor and the mentee. Typically, a mentee is more receptive to feedback if he or she feels like an active participant in the relationship. Questions to consider include the following:

  • What will the role of the mentor be?
  • What types of mentoring will be most effective?
  • What are the responsibilities of the mentee and mentor? For example, the mentee may be required to attend specific training given by the mentor or to complete a certain number of mutually determined goals during the mentoring period.

7. Acquire mentoring skills and competencies

As well as learning new skills and gaining new knowledge from your mentor, you will also learn an awful lot about the art of mentoring itself. Who knows, you may soon be mentoring someone else. Pay attention to skills that you notice in your mentor, such as listening, guidance, recommendations and shared learning. When you receive feedback from your mentor, don’t be defensive – they are just being a ‘critical friend’ because they care. Listen, digest and apply what you have learned.

8. Be respectful of your mentor’s time

Do not overburden your mentor by demanding too much time or help. A real skill in developing an effective mentoring relationship is establishing what ‘too much’ means. This can take time, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right from the start. Understand that the moment you decide you need help and support might not be the best time for your mentor, so be patient.

9. Express your gratitude

Your mentor is likely to give a lot more to the relationship than you do in terms of time and expertise. Be sure regularly to express that you value and appreciate your mentor’s guidance.

10. Vary the activities you do together

There are numerous activities you can do with your mentor, such as talking about your past experiences, goals, plans, and skill development and attending meetings, conferences and other events. You can also shadow your mentor at school or exchange and discuss written materials like your CV or a school document one of you has written.

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Steve BurnageSteve Burnage has a breadth of experience leading challenging inner-city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Steve may be contacted by email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or via his website www.simplyinset.co.uk.

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