Mentors who approach the task with an open mind and a willingness to listen are very likely to learn a thing or two.
Mentoring is often regarded as a one-way street where the mentor imparts wisdom and knowledge to a less experienced person. But it’s surprising how many mentors say they also learn from the relationship.
In a recent AHRI survey of human resources mentors, two-thirds said that they received reverse benefits from mentoring.
What can mentors learn?
“Expect to learn things, but don’t expect to know what they are when you start,” is AHRI chairman Peter Wilson’s advice to mentors.
For one thing, mentors can learn about the latest practices and new technology, he says. In digital media, for example, they can find out “how devices help us manage work and life together”.
It’s also possible for attitudes to change and to gain new perspectives. Wilson cites the example of an older male mentoring a younger female colleague.
“They have the veil lifted from their eyes sometimes in terms of what it’s like to be a woman in the workplace, and the trials and tribulations they experience, compared to what they might think to be the case.”
Making the mentoring process successful for both parties
Karen Delvin, founder and managing director of boutique business consultancy Bridges, says being ‘present’ and open to possibilities produces the best results.
“If you’re not mindful and your head is full of information you want to dump onto the mentee,” says Delvin, “you won’t be open to the opportunities that present themselves.”
A key to successful mentoring is active listening. Wilson suggests that mentors should limit their talking and listen 80 per cent of the time.
“The mentor has to be a very good listener and has to suggest by parallel experience,” says Wilson, who wrote the book Make Mentoring Work (2012).
Mentors shouldn’t go into a mentoring relationship with the hope of learning something, or with pre-conceived notions of what they are going to learn, he says.
“The prime customer in a mentoring relationship is the mentee, and the reverse mentoring learnings come from the implications of discussions and thinking that the mentor gets from probing the mentee.
“A lot of the mentoring benefits for the mentor are casual and arise from the experience, but mentors don’t embrace mentees to learn from them in a particular way.”
If a mentoring relationship is to be successful, says Wilson, it should be regarded as a business relationship and each meeting should be properly structured. And the mentor as well as the mentee needs to think about what he or she wants out of the relationship from the start.
“Both parties have to be seeking some pretty clear goals and objectives. I don’t think you can enter a mentoring relationship and just see what happens,” says former AHRI board member Chris Jeffrey, who now has his own HR consultancy.
The process of mentoring can prompt mentors to re-examine their own established practices and assumptions, says Jeffrey.
“After a while, when you’ve been working for a number of years, you tend to think the same as you’ve thought for a number of years.
“You slip into a pattern in the way you act and react to situations, and I think a younger person challenges that pattern. They challenge you to rethink, because very often the simple question they ask is ‘why?’”
It’s very important for mentors to adopt an open-minded attitude for their own benefit as well as the mentee’s.
“If they go in thinking they know it all,” says Jeffrey, “they are unlikely to gain much.”
Case study: Karen Delvin
Karen Delvin didn’t expect to learn much when she started mentoring some of her junior staff members.
“I probably thought I was there to share knowledge and skills. I very quickly realized that it’s a two-way process,” says Delvin, founder and managing director of Bridges.
Mentoring has given her the opportunity to reflect on her own practices as a leader or work colleague. For example, when mentoring people who are having difficulties with their supervisor, she helps them think the challenge through and consider how they might change their own behaviour or approach.
“As we’re discussing that, I’ll reflect on when I’ve had that challenge, what I learnt from it and what I’m doing differently now. It’s a reminder of how much I’ve learnt along the way.”
AHRI’s mentoring program intake for 2015 opens in September 2014 for commencement in March 2015. The program runs for 12 months. If you would like to be a mentor or mentee, visit the AHRI website or email AHRI direct.