A mentor – your critical friend?

6 11 2013

“People who grow up in difficult circumstances and yet are successful have one thing in common – at a crucial juncture in their adolescence they had a positive relationship with a caring adult” – Bill Clinton.

There are many myths and misunderstandings about what it is to be a mentor.

The quotation from Bill Clinton captures the essence of what it means – getting the right support at the right time to make a significant difference.

Firstly, it talks about ” a crucial juncture“. Timing is everything. We are not always ready to hear what we need to hear. As a young adult I would have been reluctant to take any advice from anybody. I knew best. Nobody could teach me anything. Sound familiar? Maybe you don’t recognise that in yourself, or in your younger self, but we all know people who just cannot be told. Even if the advice is perfectly sound, perfectly constructed and delivered if the recipient isn’t listening then the advice is valueless. The right advice, or rather the right intervention, is only ever really right if it is received and acted upon.

Timing is everything. A mentor should be a Samaritan; a crutch in a crisis not a walking stick for life. A mentor is someone who can provide the support needed at that moment. The support needed at different times in a career or stage of personal development will vary. If you break your leg then someone offering a crutch would be a good person to know. If you break your arm and someone offered you a crutch it would be of little use but if someone could lend you a sling, that would be of value. So a mentor, unlike labrador puppies, is not for life. A mentor can provide the right support at the right time. And from the perspective of a mentor, they shouldn’t expect or encourage a long-term dependence. It can be hard to walk away but think of it like Mary Poppins, goodbye children, my work here is done.

And “ a positive relationship“? Mentoring isn’t a one-way street. A coach can impart particular skills; instruct in areas where there is a skill shortage or a lack of understanding. It is a transaction from one who has knowledge and expertise to one who has less. Mentoring is a relationship. It requires participation from both parties. My way of looking at this is that a mentor is a critical friend. The relationship isn’t one of teacher and pupil. The mentor should be able to learn as well as teach. And it should be a positive experience. A mentor should be encouraging and supportive. A mentor should be like one of the dragons in Dragons Den, with the person being mentored standing covering in their shadow! A mentor may well have to be critical of ideas or of the direction of travel of the person they support but to be effective the mentoring dynamic should be a positive relationship.

And a critical friend isn’t a best mate. A mentor isn’t the person to stand with you chatting at the bar into the early hours of the morning, listening to your life story and various tales of bad luck and assorted other misfortunes. If you are just looking for someone to talk to, moan to or offload to then you don’t need a mentor you need what in Liverpool we would call a bezzie, a best mate. You should go to your mentor with simple, discreet, time-bound questions. One’s to which there is an answer, or the possibility of finding a solution. Life’s intractable problems and unanswereables are best left for your mum or your god.

The final part of the quotation talks of a “caring adult“. A mentor has to care about the outcome. They should be disinterested not uninterested. Being a mentor is not just throwing fine words to the wind. The mentor should be impartial but should care about what you do with the advice; whether it is acted upon, whether it adds value, if it has been used and what was the outcome. This is a learning process for the mentor too.

And finally I think that the mentor should be an adult, or rather should be a grown up. The relationship has to be an adult one. There shouldn’t be room for ego and childishness and tantrums. Constructive support positively received.

So there we have it. 32 words of quotation explained in a further 700! – the perfect analogy for mentoring.

karen is managing editor at http://www.the3rdimagazine.co.uk
looking at business issues from a more diverse perspective



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