MENTORING IS a powerful means for transferring knowledge at a very personal level, and is effective in a variety of organisational contexts. However, there are eight common pitfalls in mentoring:
1. Mentoring without a defined end
Mentoring that goes on forever without clearly defining a period of time is prone to drift and falter.
You need to define the mentoring period. Typically, this is three months (intensive), six months (moderate) or twelve months (long term). This is not to say that the mentoring period cannot go longer than the period you have defined, but by putting boundaries on the time relationship makes it more manageable, and you and your mentee can set specific goals that you want to achieve within this time. You can also set the frequency of meetings (or milestones) within these time limits. For example, if you opt for three months, it’s good to meet weekly or fortnightly, whereas if it’s over 12 months, then opt for meeting once a month.
2. Irregular and postponed meetings
Mentoring that does establish clear meeting dates across the mentoring period right from the start is liable to fail.
It’s assumed that both you and your mentee are busy. When you drift from one meeting to the next, setting adhoc meetings, it’s very likely that the next meeting will be cancelled or postponed. It’s a therefore a good idea to set a regular day and time, right from the outset, across the whole period. For example, Friday every fortnight at 5:00 pm. A routine is then established: you will have it in mind when planning other activities. It’s also a good idea to meet at the same venue: the cafe down the road, or at your work office. Regularity makes the relationship easier to manage. Then if there are emergencies on a particular day, the meeting appointment can be changed, and then you revert back to the set meeting pattern.
3. Not knowing what to talk about
By the third or fourth meeting, it’s common that momentum in the relationship falters, and you feel like you are going over the same issues, or the mentee seems not to be getting much out of the relationship.
Having the mentee set clear goals at the beginning of the relationship is crucial. These should be personally specific, or related to their ‘circle of influence’ (their friends, family, colleagues, workplace). These goals must be visible and assessed throughout the relationship, to see whether these are being achieved, and to discuss openly how these can be refocussed if necessary. Secondly, it’s important that both you and your mentee set an agenda for each meeting. Encourage your Mentee to do this: just one or two items will do, and then explore these in depth in the meeting.
4. Having no set ending
Without a clear ending to the relationship, it’s common to just drift on, without clear purpose.
Set a fixed timeline with an end point. As this end point approaches, prepare your mentee for release. Do not develop dependency: you want your mentee to have the self-confidence to continue independently beyond the mentoring period. Once at the end point, you may decide to end the relationship completely, or continue on a different basis: different timeline, different goals.
5. Confusion of roles: coach or counsellor
There is common confusion about the role of the mentor being a coach or councellor.
Having the mentee set clear goals will make your role clearer. Depending on the mentee goals, you may find your role changes across the mentoring period. For example, you may uncover some psychological issue preventing your mentee from achieving, and therefore you become more counsellor than coach. At another time, it may be that they require specific skills, and you may be able to deliver these, or suggest someone who can – even a course.
6. Lack of mentoring experience
It’s common to believe we’re naturally good at mentoring, just because we’re good at our work.
Mentoring is a skill, and like anything, we become better with experience and practice. Too many mentoring programs load the mentor up at the beginning with manuals and books, and say “read this and get on with it”. But most of us like to learn as we go. Therefore, having access to continual advice and training resources that will help as you go is important, particularly around such things as confidentiality, empathetic listening and questioning.
7. Mentor as line manager
Organisations invariably make the mistake of appointing a line manager as a mentor. This will not work.
Confidentiality is a vital ingredient in successful mentoring. A mentee has to be able to speak their mind without fearing this will be passed on to someone up the line, or even to another work colleague. It could be that the reason for the mentoring in the first place was that the mentee was having problems working with the leadership team, and needs independent support in overcoming this. If these issues are conveyed in any way to line managers, this could undermine the confidence of the mentee to overcome these issues, and it will put the whole mentoring relationship in jeopardy.
8. Not questioning: did it work?
A lot of mentoring is not evaluated, and there is no assessment as to its impact on the circle of influence (family, colleagues, workplace).
There is no sense in having a mentoring scheme if it is not known whether it was successful. Questioning the mentor and mentee about their appreciation of the relationship is one way to do this. It’s more difficult to assess its wider impact, but this can be done by 360 degree evaluation techniques: asking friends or colleagues if they have noticed changes in mentee attitude, behaviour or understanding.