Mentoring: How to ensure you’re not putting on a muppet show

It’s all too easy to end up like the rear end of the pantomime horse when it comes to mentoring, says Rus Slater. He points out the pitfalls to avoid in this case study, and says you can create all-singing, all-dancing mentoring, where everybody’s happy.

Mentoring is generally recognised as the activity of helping an individual to develop their career in the medium and long terms and, as such, is a coaching activity but generally in a more personal arena and has a longer-term timeframe.

The models used in coaching, GROW and OSCAR, are just as useful in a mentoring situations as they are in the performance coaching circumstance and therefore it is generally a sound idea to ensure that mentors are familiar with and competent in the use of this type of support.

Since mentoring is related to career advancement it is generally accepted that mentors should have gravitas; there should be a degree of instant credibility in the mentor who has achieved in his or her own right, the mentor is in a position of success, his or her CV shows consistent elevation towards their own career goals. The potential danger here is that, particularly in a changing world, the mentee ends up trying to copy the route that the mentor took. 

“A Muppet mentor was a senior manager, charged with acting as a mentor, who paid lip service to the principles of mentoring in one way or another.”

 

A case study of failure and success. By Rus Slater

This example relates to a rapidly growing niche IT consultancy. The organisation had begun in the late 1990s as seven men who ganged together as a company solely for the economy of scale. After four years they had over 400 staff and an almost obscenely successful balance sheet. Recruitment was expensive and retention was important in a skill-starved market. They needed to provide all the highly qualified staff with proof that the company cared about them beyond day rates and utilisation. 

Pitfalls in mentoring

Their initial attempt to instigate mentoring faltered for several reasons. 

Muppet mentors 

Many of the staff identified what they perceived to be ‘Muppet mentors’.

A Muppet mentor was a senior manager, charged with acting as a mentor, who paid lip service to the principles of mentoring in one way or another.

These ‘problem mentors’ manifested themselves in a range of ways:

The mentor who was too busy to schedule mentoring time into the normal working day.

The mentor who postponed mentoring meetings several times in a row, suggesting that the role was so low down their priorities that it barely mattered.

The mentor who was more interested in telling the mentee “I didn’t get where I am today by being…”, rather than trying to ascertain what the mentee wanted or needed.

The mentor who made promises of action (seeking out appropriate projects or speaking to contacts) and then signally failed to deliver.

The mentor who allowed the mentee to engage in flights of utter fantasy without ever challenging the realism of the desire.

The mentor who was actually passed over (or at least perceived as such) and who held little influence (in the organisation or the industry) and little motivation to help another to develop where (s)he had failed.

Inevitably some Muppet mentors exhibited several of the above traits!

Miserable mentees

It was accepted that the mentees were not always blameless when things didn’t work. Failings caused by mentees included:

Unrealistic expectations that the mentor could simply pull a few strings and get them their dream job

Unrealistic self appraisal leading to the belief that (s)he was, in fact, God’s gift to the industry, when in reality (s)he was a competent individual in a sea of competent individual. 

Giving the mentor what they thought the mentor wanted to hear rather than their own personal answers. (An example of this was one person who knew that the major project for the coming year was a technically unusual, 10-month contract in a city in the North of England. He had no desire whatever to work that far from his family home in Wiltshire but alluded to a desire to work on precisely that type of project because he felt it would enhance his reputation for being an ambitious, committed, ‘can-do’ person.)

Mentees who felt that the mentor would report back/record information that would/could be used against them in the future, hence they either kept postponing the meetings or they were reticent about being open and honest

Mentees who felt that they had no ambition; “I come to work, you pay me, I go home – nothing else needed”

“These ‘problem mentors’ manifested themselves in a range of ways…like the mentor who allowed the mentee to engage in flights of utter fantasy without ever challenging the realism of the desire.”

Painful processes

There were also some issues around the process. Most of the staff and managers of the company had come from Big Four firms and hated the idea of a bureaucratic, HR driven process. As a consequence their first attempt went forward with no framework, no forms, no training, no communication (beyond “we have allocated the following people to act as career mentors to the following staff”) no measurement and no real commitment.

Making it better

To avoid the mentoring program being perceived as too serious it was subtitled ‘We Do Give A Toss!’ and the light-hearted approach continued throughout the activities.

Given the reluctance to overcomplicate the process the organisation moved to a simple recording process with mentoring activity included as a reciprocal KPI for both mentors and mentees. This included a time allocation against fee earning utilisation again for both parties. They ran half-day workshops for mentors to discuss the benefits of mentoring and the characteristics needed by a successful mentor. They ran half-day workshops for mentees to similarly discuss the benefits and the characteristics needed for mentees to get the best from mentoring.

Ultimately the introduced process and behaviours were successfully embedded across the business and they supported a low staff turnover rate and created an environment where people did feel valued. The company went on to grow dramatically, embarking on the acquisition trail and floating on the stock-market, making millionaires out of the original seven guys. Presently they have offices in seven countries, 4,000 staff and a turnover of around £100 million. 

Rus Slater is an independent L&D specialist who can be contacted through www.coach-and-courses.com

References:

[1] http://www.coach-and-courses.com

[2] http://www.trainingzone.co.uk/item/178892

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