In many mentoring programmes people are paired up from different organisations or from distant parts of the same organisation, and therefore face some potential hurdles for the mentee in applying learning from the mentoring relationship back home in the mentee’s job situation.

Does your mentor really understand the issue?

Where both the mentor and mentee come from the same organisation, even if from different parts of the organisation, it is easier for the mentor to understand your issues in context and to help you frame an action plan and implement it successfully. The mentor understands the culture, history and politics of the job situation and can take these into account.

A mentor from a different company has the enormous advantage of being very objective and arms-length, but has to make very sure that you can reflect on and describe the context of the developmental issue that you are wanting help with. In this situation, particularly, the mentor has to guard against giving advice or suggestions based on her own experience, as this might be inappropriate in your current situation.

So particular attention must be paid to finding good questions which will help you to frame the issue from your point of view and from the point of view of others around you. Then attention must be paid to developing a range of possible ways to tackle the issue and a careful thinking through of the advantages and disadvantages of the various options.

The mentor’s imagination will come into play, as she tries in her mind to put herself into your shoes and really understand the issues. The mentor must listen carefully to what you say (or don’t say), to the type of language you are using, the emotions involved. The mentor must be careful not to make assumptions about the situation.

Are you as the mentee using the mentoring relationship in the best way?

There are a range of issues that mentees bring for discussion in the mentoring relationship. These tend to fall into the following types:

  • Development of knowledge, technical competence or behavioural competence such as leadership skills
  • Career development – where to next, what is the skills gap
  • Networking or learning resources – where to go for help on various issues
  • Emotional support, challenge to think differently, safe space to talk about personal issues.

Mentees find that one of the main advantages of having an external mentor is being able to discuss major career changes such as setting up a small business or whether a specific job opportunity with another employer is the right career move. An external mentor could also help with any or all of the other types of issues, but there are limitations in the extent to which the mentor can help with internal networks, internal politics, specific company knowledge and, in some cases, leadership skills specific to a company situation. In such circumstances, it is probably better to seek out an internal mentor or trustworthy person.

Assuming that the issue being discussed with the mentor is appropriate for an external mentor, what can you as a mentee do to make sure that you can take the learning back to your job situation and apply it successfully? Some of the following tips can help you with this:

  • Make the issue manageable and solvable – the mentor can be more useful in helping with tangible problems than changing the world! For example – it’s hard to deal with an issue such as “My boss hates me”, but it’s easier to deal with an issue such as “I need to work out whether I can continue working with my boss or whether I must change my job”.
  • Be clear about what you want. Try to state the problem clearly and then explain the background and the context to the mentor. It can be confusing for the mentor to hear a long story, with the point coming only at the end. So think it through before you see your mentor. Try to explain the issue from four different sides:
    • Your own position stated factually
    • Your own emotional reaction to the situation
    • How your situation affects other people – stated objectively
    • How your situation affects other people emotionally
  • Be honest about whether you commit to do something. If you’ve worked out some options to try out something back in the job, but you’re not sure if any of them will work, be sure to tell your mentor that, and then try to work out why you think they might not work.  Don’t walk away at the end of a session with something you are privately doubtful about. Mentoring relationships work best when the mentee can commit fully to an agreed outcome – otherwise, both parties are wasting their time. Don’t agree to try something just because you want to look good to your mentor. Mentoring relationships are about mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual open communication – if you don’t have that, you are in the wrong relationship.
  • Be open with your manager. Mentees are encouraged to tell their managers that they have an external mentor and to tell them also what sort of developmental issues they are working on with their mentors. Usually, the manager is only too pleased to have someone also trying to help with staff development. If your manager knows about your mentoring, he/she can help you find opportunities to use your expanded skills or knowledge. It can be very counter-productive to try to apply learning only to have your manager discourage you because he/she doesn’t understand what you are trying to do.
  • Enrol other support back on the job. Try to work out who you can enrol to give you feedback at work. Your mentor can’t observe you trying out your new learning or knowledge – so find someone who can. Take that person into your confidence and ask for their help. For example, if you want to try being more assertive in meetings, and you’ve worked out a few specific behaviours with your mentor, tell a colleague that you’re going to try using those behaviours, and ask for feedback after the meeting.

Mentoring is not for sissies!

Good mentoring is very challenging – it usually involves self-reflection to achieve better self-awareness and requires determination to change one’s own situation or behaviour, which is often extremely difficult. Mentors are busy, successful people, who offer themselves as mentors due to a desire to help others develop. So it is important to make the very most of the opportunity that mentoring offers – and making sure that you use the learning and make it stick is the best way to repay your mentor for their investment in you.

[Originally published for the Women in IT website.]