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Human Resources
Jun 1, 2017

The Mentoring Dance: Who Leads and Who Follows?

Sponsored Content provided by Dave Hoff - Chief Operating Officer and Executive VP of Leadership Development, EASI Consult

I was working with a group of senior managers recently and the discussion in the room was that several people were looking for mentors. These people had been told previously that they were high-potential, meaning they were seen as people with the ability to take on greater responsibility or move into bigger jobs in the future. 

Mentoring was not the issue I had been brought in to work with them on, so I simply listened to the discussion. 
Let me define mentoring. It is a process whereby someone with more experience or expertise agrees to work with a less-experienced person to develop that individual’s skill, perspective or capability.

Some companies have a formal process for identifying and training people to be mentors. The company may also take on the role of matching mentors and mentees.  In other organizations the process is informal, spontaneous and organic.

In this second case, the scenario may be that I see someone within the organization who is very knowledgeable about a subject I want to know more about. I approach this person and ask if he/she would be willing to mentor me.

I think of mentoring as a bit like dancing, and for a couple of reasons.  First, mentoring, like ballroom dancing, can be a little awkward at the beginning of the relationship (think of the first time two people are out on the dance floor together). Both the mentor and the mentee must take time to get to know each other and be explicit about their goals for, and expectations of, the relationship. 

In dancing, you need one person to lead and the other to follow. People new to dancing often find that either both people are trying to lead = and stepping on each other’s toes - or no one is leading, resulting in no clear direction as to where to go or what to do next.

With the best dancers I have observed, there is clarity in what each role involves and how it is executed. This is much like an effective mentoring relationship. The what, where, when and how of the relationship needs to be clearly discussed. 

While there is one leader in a dance team, at least on the dance floor, it may be slightly different in a mentoring relationship. It is, of course, clear to the mentor and the mentee which one has and can provide expertise, but the person who initiates that interaction may be either the mentor or the mentee. 

The daily online publication, Government Executive, recently ran a story by Ian McAllister called “How to Nurture a Successful Mentor and Protégé Relationship.” 
 
In that article, McAllister claims there are seven attributes in this relationship:

  1. Mutually understood goals
  2. Mentee-driven
  3. Bandwidth-appropriate
  4. A focus on approaches, not tactics
  5. A focus on listening
  6. Transparency
  7. Dissolved appropriately
McAllister and I agree on mutual goals. But while he sees the mentee as the one driving the relationship, I view “driving” as a shared function, with the mentee likely initiating more often. Bandwidth refers to the mentor not getting overloaded, and I agree.
 
The focus on approaches and not tactics, I mostly agree with, since mentoring is different than coaching, which focuses more on asking questions to lead the person being coached. A mentor can ask some questions of the mentee, but the relationship is more about telling and sharing their experiences. The mentor can and should be willing to describe the tactics they used to deal with a specific situation. If the conversation then evolves to how the mentee is going to handle a similar situation, I can see the mentor asking some “how-to” questions. 
 
I agree with McAllister on the importance of transparency, and that mentor relations should only last as long as necessary. That could be for a short period or an extended amount of time, but once the relationship has achieved the objectives for which is was originally constituted, victory should be declared and the relationship ended. I have seen situations where the mentor and mentee have outgrown the relationship but neither feels comfortable officially ending it. 
 
In conclusion, I am a fan of mentoring in organizations. I have seen them over-engineered, particularly on the “matching” component.  Matching can work, but in the best relationships, the two people bond naturally based on some chemistry between them. The two parties do need to talk about goals, roles, norms and capability. This clarity will result in shared expectations and reduced ambiguity.
 
Mentors and mentees need to sit down together periodically – perhaps quarterly - to talk about how they are working together. A seat-of-the-pants relationship can work, but a relationship in which you are also discussing what’s working and what can be improved will work even better.

EASI•Consult® works with Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and mid-sized corporations to provide customized Talent Management solutions. EASI•Consult’s specialties include leadership assessment, online pre-employment testing, survey research, competency modeling, leadership development, executive coaching, 360-degree feedback, online structured interviews, and EEO hiring compliance. The company is a leader in the field of providing accurate information about people through professional assessment. To learn more about EASI•Consult, visit www.easiconsult.com, email [email protected] or call (800) 922-EASI.


 

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