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Mentoring: The skills you really need

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27th Sep 2013
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Unimenta's Emma-Sue Prince shares her good - and bad - mentoring experiences.

Several years ago I worked on a large-scale, expensive mentoring programme between corporate leaders and SMEs, back in the day when this kind of initiative was supported and funded by the London Development Agency – remember them? Big bosses of big companies like Vodafone, Virgin and McVities, all based at Park Royal at the time - a big industrial area - took part in mentoring small businesses (SMEs), also located at Park Royal, under the aim of 'urban regeneration'. The Park Royal Partnership Mentoring Programme was a major urban regeneration initiative. I was paid well for developing the mentoring training and even a qualification to go with it. It was a great project.

But it was also a colossal waste of time and money.

Why and where did such a great idea and intention go wrong? The purpose of it all was for the corporate leaders to learn from mentoring a small business and bring back some of that learning to their environments. Things like quick thinking and being entrepreneurial. For the SMEs it was about expansion and learning from a large company. Things like effective HR processes and proper health and safety procedures. There were targets and parameters in place and each SME and each mentor leader went through a rigorous selection process, as well as a matching process, and the expensive pilot commenced supported by training at a top London business school.

The problem was that the mentor leaders did not really understand the first thing about mentoring and the SME failed to make any commitment to the relationship. Although there were some success stories – have a look at this video clip of the project.

The reason I now say that it was a waste of time and money is because more often than not, the mentor and mentee would meet for 'a bit of a chat' or, worse – saw it as a platform for imparting wisdom. There were also a lot of egos involved – on both sides. And an assumption of what was known and what could be learned. None of which was adequately addressed through supervision or formal training that supported this programme.

"...mentoring today requires more than just experience – it requires a willingness to reflect and share all types of experiences."

Mentoring is synonymous with the process by which we ‘guard’ and ‘guide’ others – mentors seemingly 'adopt' those placed in their care: teaching, inspiring, advising, challenging and correcting. Mentoring is one of the oldest forms of influence and knowledge sharing. It started with the Ancient Greeks; Mentor was Odysseus’ trusted counsellor and advisor. Mentoring is when one individual actively and willingly passes on knowledge and wisdom onto another person.

But how are leaders meant to mentor others in this way when they are operating in a world in which they are actually NOT experienced or wise? A world where technology, globalisation and the fiercest competition any of us has ever seen is part of everyday life and presents challenges no one has really ever had to deal with before. We are all learning each and every day.

So, what is the real value of mentoring within leadership?

The mentoring relationship today looks quite different from the aspirational Park Royal programme pre-2008. The world has changed completely since then. The issues that an SME may struggle with, that a corporate leader may struggle with are so different. That programme was largely doomed to fail because it did not anticipate dealing with accelerated change and hugely challenging market conditions and assumed a traditional mentoring relationship. Many of those Park Royal SMEs are now bust and the corporates have their own stuff to deal with. Some of those mentor bosses are now without jobs.

Today, no one is wise. Nobody has wisdom to impart because things change so fast and so hard.

A good mentor needs to be more than just a successful individual because what made them successful may or may not work now. So mentoring today requires more than just experience – it requires a willingness to reflect and share all types of experiences. Great mentors must be constantly trying to learn and develop themselves.

That’s why I believe the mentoring relationship needs to change, fundamentally and be much more about supporting someone to build personal competences that will enable them to handle this new world we are in. In that scenario, a mentor might be someone who has been through particularly harsh life experiences and, through these, has built up resilience and adaptability and can encourage and support someone else to take more risks, to get resilient, to bounce back. A mentor might be old or young; preferably someone who has failed and bounced back - and then failed again.

Emma Sue Prince is author of The Advantage, published by Pearson March 2013. The book focuses on redefining soft skills as personal competences we each need to develop and use, now more than ever. She is also the director of Unimenta – a best practice, free membership site for any trainer or practitioner developing soft skills. Click here to view Unimenta's TrainingZone Connect page

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