Two ears, one mouth: The art of mentoring

by Iain Hopkins09 Jul 2012

He adds that formal programs (those set by large corporates but specifically AHRI’s program) often work because there is less reliance on chance for meeting or selecting a suitable mentor. “People who need mentors aren’t always good at asking for them, the end date sometimes means that mentors are more likely to commit, everyone understands what’s expected of them, a contact person can help out with any teething problems and the evaluation process helps us to define our progress,” he says.

Mushenko agrees and notes the mutuality of a formal agreement increases goal clarity and promotes accountability for both parties. “Structure is important as long as there is a flexible approach to the client’s needs. Sounds like a paradox but getting the balance right is essential!”

She adds that when mentoring someone outside your organisation, advising on sensitive issues is easier. However, internally HR is forever the coach. “Dabbling in the mentor zone could result in scary compromises between the relationship between line managers and their staff,” she warns.

Essential traits

So what character traits make for a successful mentor? Mushenko says our motivations are shaped by past experiences and can influence our assumptions, but can also block development. As such there is much convergence in the skillsets required for effective consultants. These skills and traits include goal identification, reality checking, listening, empathy, guidance and even correctional instruction. The ability to build trust cannot be underestimated, especially when providing constructive feedback.

“Being client-led is also critical. You don’t want to appear to be the fountain of eternal knowledge seeking discipleship,” she adds.

For Laidlaw the essential attributes are crystalised in a short list: 

  • Most importantly, a genuine interest in others
  • Two ears and one mouth, so that they spend twice as long listening and half the time talking
  • Loads of experience
  • A small or manageable ego 

“You see a lot of people trying to ‘preach’ or ‘guide’ their young mentee, giving them the wisdom of their experience. It’s good to have the wisdom, but you shouldn’t be reliving your past and creating a mini-me. Those that have a genuine interest in others with a capacity to listen and ask questions are great mentors,” he says.

Two-way street

Given that most mentors do have plenty of experience and are often time poor (the AHRI program is typically a nine-month commitment), what’s in it for them? Laidlaw says that spending any time with a motivated, interested and optimistic person is a wonderful relationship to be part of – regardless of what you call it. “It keeps you in touch with what is going on for people generally, and in every instance I’ve been the beneficiary of some reverse mentoring, especially with some of the excitement they demonstrate and skills that are shared,” he says.

Mushenko believes also such relationships are mutually beneficial. “I’ve gained much insight from the people I’ve mentored in the past,” she says. “The mentee exposes you to organisations, cultures and situations you would only have a peripheral view of otherwise.”


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