My organization instituted a mentoring program a few years ago. We have a cool online system so that prospective mentees can review bios and request people who have signed up to be mentors. I have been chosen by a few people and have really enjoyed being a mentor.
Our system provides some guidelines to mentors but it isn’t a lot of information, and I have some questions. Our HR person didn’t have many answers for me so I thought I should ask you.
I notice that you are a coach and I am wondering: what do you think the difference is between coaching and mentoring? What is my responsibility as a mentor? How do I know how much is enough? What is too much? What if I hear something that I think should be reported to my mentee’s boss? That hasn’t happened yet, but I find that it can get pretty personal. What else do I need to know?
What a fun question! Thanks! First, you are a good egg to sign up to mentor. It can be great fun, and you can certainly learn a lot, but it is a service you are providing.
Although I am told that nobody buys or reads books anymore, I still must recommend the one that Ken Blanchard wrote with Claire Diaz-Ortiz (who is staggeringly cool, look her up). It’s called One Minute Mentoring: How to Find and Work with a Mentor—And Why You’ll Benefit from Being One.
The book is an easy and fun read and will fill in some gaps for you.
A couple of pointers though:
- Establish desired outcomes. The first thing you will want to establish in a mentoring relationship is what the mentee hopes to accomplish by working with a mentor. This will help you to build a road map for the relationship, and to know if you have done a good job at the end.
- Designate a timeline. You will want to establish a time limit for the mentoring relationship as well, not that you can’t choose to carry on when you have reached the finish line, if both parties agree. But designating a timeline eliminates any discomfort around calling it quits if the goals have been accomplished, or if either party wants to move on.
- Create a partnership agreement. How will you work together? How will you give each other feedback if the need arises? How will you deal with it if you disagree about a course of action?
- Design a structure. You can tweak the agreement as you go but putting form to the function is important. Will you meet in person, on the phone, or on Zoom? How often and for how long? Maybe agree on a midpoint check-in to assess if things are going as well as you’d both like.
- Track progress. It should be the mentee’s job to create a written record of the goals, commitments, accomplishments, and insights gained over the course of the mentoring relationship. It will help you both to recognize the value of your time spent together.
- Let the mentee drive the relationship. This is my opinion, but being a mentor is a service and I don’t think it is up to you to chase after your mentee. If the mentee is not taking the work seriously, you can certainly make that observation. If the mentee is not showing up for meetings, you can ask what is going on. You can also ask if there is anything you have done or said that has turned off the mentee. That is keeping up your end of the bargain, and you can leave it at that.
- Determine the confidentiality parameters. To answer your question, “What if I hear something?”—I am a fan of the “cone of silence,” so that mentees can feel safe to be themselves and share things they aren’t comfortable sharing with anyone else. This demands your commitment to never, ever reveal anything you learn about your mentee unless you have a legal obligation to do so. I am hoping that your organization has provided some guidelines on this; maybe it is buried in the fine print. You may have a duty to escalate anything you hear about:
- Serious mental health issues like suicidal ideation.
- Anything that might become a lawsuit. For example, suppose your mentee is suffering from what sounds like a form of harassment. Because you are an agent of the organization, if your mentee can show that he spoke to someone in the organization about the problem and nothing was done—even if he asked you not to do anything—it could blow up in your face.
- Illegal activity. For example, if your mentee suspects that her boss or a colleague is stealing, sharing trade secrets, or is engaging in other nefarious behaviors.
I know that these parameters apply to our professional coaches. Of course, your first line of defense will always be to encourage your mentee to escalate to HR or a mental health professional. They may just need your help to distinguish fact from speculation or, worst case, to find the courage to escalate if that is appropriate.
Traditionally, the mentor’s job includes:
- Being a role model: Engaging in distinct activities and displaying behaviors that are role specific.
- Consulting: Sharing information or expertise about the industry, company, or business unit that the mentor believes is relevant to the mentee.
- Brokering: Making introductions to powerful, influential, and otherwise useful individuals in the industry or organization.
- Advocating: Promoting the mentee’s work assignments or career development to help the mentee’s growth and development.
- Championing: Listening to the mentee’s interests, passions, and strengths, and encouraging them to ask for what they need to grow.
Mentors will often find themselves in a coaching conversation. This can happen when a goal is not crystal clear, or when a problem is overwhelmingly complex. In these situations, coaching can be used to create clarity. Coaching is a great tool when the mentor does not have enough expertise to add the most value or give advice. Coaching conversations promote discovery, generate insights, and clarify purposeful action for another. When this kind of thing crops up, listen carefully, reflect back what you are hearing, and ask open ended questions. Here are some classic coaching questions that you might deploy, depending on the situation:
- What is most important right now?
- What is working well/not working the way you’d like?
- What is getting in your way/stopping you?
- What is driving you/sustaining you?
- What are you assuming here?
- What belief might not be serving you?
- What are you resisting?
- What are you allowing/tolerating?
- How have you contributed to this situation?
- How might you change the narrative?
- How are you going to make this decision?
- What question should we be asking right now?
As one recent webinar participant pithily noted, a mentor will answer your questions while a coach will question your answers. Often, it is true that the mentor would rather be the brilliant one with all the answers, while the coach is dedicated to the mentee being the brilliant one. And if the match is made in heaven, you will both be brilliant.
Do these conversations tend to blend together and overlap? Sure, they do. Ultimately, if you accept that your number one job is to advocate for the mentee’s best self and best interest, you will have to trust yourself and use your good judgment.
I hope your mentoring experience continues to be a positive experience!
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.