This question might seem odd, as mentors are often presumed to be experts. They are expected to be the ones who pass on learning to the next generation of leaders or entrepreneurs. Yet, there is an often unstated and highly compelling case to train and certify as a mentor. There are at least eight key reasons to invest in mentor training.
And it all starts with you!
What does a mentor need to learn?
Being aware of your own development needs is the starting point to becoming a mentor. These are the areas in which you are likely to develop if you invest the time to become a good mentor!
- Lifelong learning
- Job enrichment
- Relational depth
- Psychological Safety
- Social impact
Developing these life skills can open up a wide spectrum of opportunities, from teaching, consulting, coaching, investing, being Entrepreneur-in-Residence, online learning, program designer, enterprise manager, and so. In fact, these facilitative roles will become increasingly important in the future as we pay more attention to the ecosystems that foster innovation and creativity.
My own learning journey
Success can generate its own problems. After surviving on a board through an IPO and M&A, my company decided to relocate to China. That was a step too far for me and my young family. I had already been taking on a mentoring role in supporting our portfolio of about 23 countries, mostly with young inexperienced founders and CEOs. So founding my own coaching firm seemed both a natural step and one that appealed to my entrepreneurial nature.
I discussed this with a friend, who gave me some sage advice: Get trained as a coach first. Best advice I ever had. As a result, I’ve always been able to comfortably combine mentoring (passing on knowledge) with coaching (generating new knowledge), and used this to build coaching businesses.
Not only did coach training provide me with a means to engage clients in a different way, it also forced me to address questions about myself. Especially, it forced me to stop focusing on “I,me, my” and really pay attention to the other person, to watch and listen intently.
By reflecting back what I saw and heard, I was often able to reveal insights that the person themselves was unaware. This might have been revealed as a word choice, an avoidance, an anxious silence, a flow of energy, a throw-away line, all revealing something significant going on beneath the surface.
Yet, like many specialists and former founders, I couldn’t help but feel strangely detached from the organisations I had supported over many years. Investors, coaches, consultants, accountants, lawyers, and advisors of various need to stay in the background, and allow their clients to do their work.
Mentoring (and coaching) is a type of relational that enables outsiders to make a unique and valuable contribution to an organisation, without “taking charge”. Many consultants or advisors might well be using mentoring already, to provide a “light touch” intervention that focuses on developing others, rather then being centre stage.
For people used to running things, this is not always an easy or comfortable transition. In deep, I feel it’s been a life’s work to develop the ability to put one’s own ego aside.
Reflecting on the past 20 or more years, the opportunity to learn as a mentor has contributed so much more to everything I do. It isn’t just about mentoring the person in front of you. The more you mentor, the more you learn about yourself and those around you. Mentoring grows your social intelligence, and your acuity in reading complex people and organisations.
Let’s look at how in more detail:
Much of our education system and training industry looks backwards, to past “best practices” and what has come before. Yet, to grow as people we need to learn for the future. We need to evergreen our learning so we grow continuously. The best way to do this is learning from others, especially leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs, who are creating the future.
Mentoring is a aspect of leadership. Whole mentoring mustn’t “take over”, the mentor nevertheless can develop this vital element in leadership. It’s the ability to listen intently, and question deeply, and then deliver feedback or insight that can shift another person’s way of seeing the world. This might happen through story telling, blunt truth-saying, sharing an observation, or simply asking a powerful question for which there is no easy answer.
Inevitably, as we progress through our careers, we often become incredibly specialised. We built our networks and tribes. It’s all too easy to become “boxed in” and “channelled”. Mentoring is literally being outside our comfort zone, most of the time. Contributing to the success of others, and to the health of a university or professional ecosystem, can enable “outsiders” to contribute directly to building of a healthy organisation.
Mentoring is really a distillation of high level relational and social skills that can be used to enrich any personal or professional activity, from parenting, teaching to investing. For example, many successful investors begin by mentoring founders. It’s through this relationship that trust can be built. There are vital ethical boundaries to manage, but mentoring fits well with and adds value to many other roles.
To many of us trained in the analytical, fact-based approach to business (I was previously head of an Executive Compensation practice…the least relational job on the planet!), mentoring provides an open opportunity to develop relational skills. This might involve having the courage to tackle difficult or sensitive subjects. I often have to deliver negative or critical feedback to founders, or even deliver an observation that might derail a new venture. In my view, demonstrating courage and honesty builds trust, rather than shying away from painful truths. Doctors know this, and in many ways good doctors use mentoring skills in their clinical practice.
Many of us are familiar with the idea of the contract. Yet too often, we do not pay attention to the unstated and unseen aspects of a professional relationship. This might involve notional boundaries about what can and can’t be discussed, and mutual roles, about what might trigger conflict, and about an agreed set of outcomes. For example, as a consultant working on difficult change projects, there’s a time you have to look out for your client and make sure they’re ok.
Asking about well being issues, health and stress, can cross a boundary in a professional relationship. This is where “sessional” or “in-the-moment” contracting becomes important. The mentor might simply, and respectfully, ask something like “Can we just spend a couple a minutes discussing how you are?”, or “Can I share an observation/concern I have about where we are?”. By surfacing possible areas of rupture, and reconstructing psychological, a mentor can build trust and reduce relational breakdown.
The mentee, or client, will notice this and use these skills in their relationships.
Paradoxically, the mentor by working mostly one-on-one, can nevertheless have a viral social impact by modelling advanced relational skills and transferring know how through showing, not telling. Just imagine if mentoring and coaching became a common place, cultural activity across the organisation. This can impact a person’s life by changing mindsets, and change an organisation by influencing the culture forever.
One of the most common uses of mentoring is to lend support to those who have been less fortunate, and come from backgrounds that are frequently marginalised in business and entrepreneurship. Mentors can directly impact on equality, diversity and inclusion, and enhance an individual’s sense of agency and empowerment, whilst also highlighting the broader systemic patterns that generate inequality and injustice in the first place.
One of the most common experiences of working with a mentor is the enduring change it brings about. This often transcends the immediate problem that was being worked on. Quite often, a mentee starts a session by describing some emergency or crisis, only to find that with the right context and perspective, things begin to look very difficult. And commonly, these “crises” often have a common source, not external to the mentee but arising from the very way in which they go about their lives and work. By addressing these underlying patterns, lives can change and businesses can thrive. What is remembered is the dialogue that resolved the problem of the day, not the crisis itself.
These are pivotal moments. Being invited to be part of these moments is the greatest privilege offered to the mentor. It is an opportunity for mutual learning and discovery that rarely happens in the daily rush of business, especially one dominated by code, spreadsheets, chatbots and powerpoint.
For this reason, if the chance comes along to train as a mentor, seize it with both hands.