To encourage better leadership on the job during the days of the Greek Empire, the Greeks invented mentoring, which exposed a young protégé to learning the experiences of a wise elder ‘who had already been there and done that’.
As we know, the Greek Empire was later replaced by the Romans, but they too kept up this practice of leadership development. In short, both civilizations believed our young leaders needed to be able to navigate complex personalities in life, and also critical strategic challenges in growing their empire.
Mentoring is about developing all these skills for the next generation of businesspeople and leaders, and then later passing them onto others. This art has moved through history and today we are seeing a major resurgence in the practice and art of mentoring.
Our current empire
We all now live in a global, digitally-connected business empire, where we all have to fight off other tribal warriors seeking to enter our business patch, and take away our competitive business advantages. Competition no longer occurs only behind heavily-protected national borders. International competitors can enter our marketplace without permission and seek a piece of our pie at will, e.g. Amazon versus our local booksellers; or the New York Times on line versus The Australian newspaper.
Most of the old rule books for business have been rendered irrelevant. Life at work is resplendent with ambiguity and uncertainty, and sometimes critical moral and ethical challenges. As a modern, developed economy, we still have, and always will rely on our basic values, rules and a sensible set of laws.
However, many laws will be thrown into occasional turmoil. For example, is Uber a transport-sharing, mutual friend of like-minded commuters? Or is it a competitor of taxis that needs to be regulated and taxed in the same way? Is Google a global, free service-provider of information, or an organisation that operates to arbitrage cross-border tax liabilities?
Some of these questions will take a long time to answer. And yet we in businesses large and small need to survive and prosper while the courts and regulators sort out some of these bigger issues during the next decade or so.
Where does mentoring fit in?
This is where mentoring enters the current fray of business growth and survival. It starts with a protégé or mentee identifying they aren’t coping, or can’t step up to the plate on their regular challenges in work and life and admitting they may need a wise, experienced and respected elder to talk to.
As the author and principal character of international bestseller and major Hollywood film Mao’s Last Dancer, Li Cunxin, told me:
“A good mentor helps you walk in your own shoes, even if you start out just wanting to walk in theirs.”
How to make mentoring work
So what makes for a good mentoring relationship? My research gives the following answers:
1. A common or harmonious set of values between mentor and mentee. In my experience, one in six mentoring pairs end prematurely because that alignment of values and trust fails to exist – for whatever reason. Therefore, I often encourage mentoring participants to be patient at the start of the relationship to get to know each other and establish mutual confidence.
2. The mentoring relationship needs to be extremely confidential and a safe haven of trust – especially for the mentee, who needs to expose their inner most fears and concerns to their mentor, in order to make material progress in overcoming them. I often say to mentees, “you need to know whether you are getting into the water with a dolphin and not a white pointer”, before you get heavily into the mentoring relationship.
3. A level of discipline – especially by the mentee. Once the mutual confidence is there, the two parties need to work hard on:
- setting objectives for the relationship – which will often run intensively for a year or so
- scheduling a regular calendar of meetings
- homework for the mentee to do in between times – e.g. either reading a relevant publication the mentor has given them, and then to apply that knowledge into a business experience that can be discussed with their mentor next time they meet.
Knowing your role in the mentoring partnership
The strength of a mentoring relationship thereafter depends on the understanding and practice of the roles for each party.
A good mentee:
- Patiently establishes trust with their mentor
- Persistently probes the mentor for real-life experiences of that person which can throw light and insights on their own challenges
- Respects the time and commitment pressures are probably higher on the mentor and flexibility is required as to their meetings
- Has a preparedness to be open and honest on who they are and what they are trying to achieve. Presenting yourself as “how you think you are expected to be seen” is a giant time-waster and should be avoided at all costs
- Diligence at completing challenges and assignments suggested by the mentor and reporting back the consequences and learnings.
On the other hand, a great mentor will usually:
- Work hard to present themselves as an equal to the mentee – i.e. stripping themselves of power body language, dress and behaviour
- Demonstrate a genuine concern and interest in the mentee
- Be an 80/20 listener/talker – and not the reverse (which mentees should avoid at all costs)
- Ask probing and insightful questions
- Pose critical learnings to the mentees, not as a set of instructions but through powerful stories of their own that parallel the challenges of the mentee
- Know when to let go, and when the mentee has reached their own moments of truth in the relationship.
Mentoring discussions are often about complex interpersonal relationships, or ‘difficult people’ we meet in work and life. In small and growing businesses, common topics relate to strategic business challenges, how to take the business to the next level, finding that work-life balance and moral and ethical dilemmas. No rocket science here – these are issues we all face each day on the job.
In writing Make Mentoring Work I interviewed nearly 100 of Australia’s top leaders, all of whom had mentors, and they all willingly shared their mentoring stories. Further I met with sponsors and managers of Australia’s 20 leading mentoring programs. The result was a book for the self-starter looking for a mentor, and those organisations who want to set up a mentoring program like my institute (Australia Human Resources Institute – AHRI), which has seen exponential growth in its activities.
The mentoring motor is now active everywhere and shows no signs of abating. It’s a key to both success and survival in this complex global digital business world in which we now all find ourselves.
Peter Wilson AM is the author of Make Mentoring Work and chairman of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) and Secretary-General of the World HR Federation (WFPMA).