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Seeking wise counsel

Whether climbing the career ladder or starting a business, people will often seek the wisdom of others to give them a hand up.  The idea of a more experienced person passing on knowledge and giving support to a less experienced individual to develop their career or build a business seems to make complete sense. It’s why mentoring programs are now widespread in organisations across industries and in the business start-up space.  However, these relationships are not without their challenges and to be successful there are some important rules that need to be considered.  A clear understanding of the purpose, expectations and objectives of the relationship, active monitoring and accountability, and an evaluation of the process are key to their success.

While mentoring is viewed as altruistic and often comes without a financial price tag, this does not mean things can’t go wrong. For example, despite its prevalence, mentoring has been criticized for being ineffective in significantly improving women’s leadership opportunities. Many mentoring relationships are often underpinned by the assumption of needing to ‘fix the women’ so they can better assimilate into masculine culture. Without an understanding of gender and power issues among mentors, there may be little challenge to the status quo in an organization.  Greater awareness of these issues has led to the redefining of mentoring programs in many organisations, and also seen the rise of sponsorship as a more effective means of advancing women. 

So, what’s the difference?  Both aim to improve career outcomes and human capital but they tend to have a different focus.  Mentors help mentees craft a career vision, provide feedback on personal and professional development and help identify strengths, build knowledge and confidence. Sponsors actively champion and accelerate the careers of high performing protégés to help them achieve a promotion, or connect them into networks that can advance their careers.

Mentoring is also now commonly used to advance and support teams such as an executive group or a team of interns.  Regardless of the mentoring relationship, training of mentors is seen as critical to successful outcomes, as is ensuring the right match. Determining the purpose and outlining clear objectives are fundamental. 

While traditional mentoring relationships have been viewed as a one-way transfer of knowledge and advice, the mutual benefits of such relationships are now being recognized. Upward or reverse mentoring, for example, focus on the developmental opportunities of a two-way process.  For example, a junior woman with a senior male executive can expand the latter’s understanding of new ways of working, how policies can impact on women and work life issues.

Having clear objectives and expectations of the mentoring relationship are no less important for aspiring entrepreneurs. While a mentor can be an indispensable guide through unchartered waters, evaluating the fit in terms of values and work ethic will make for a more successful partnership, especially if there is the opportunity to learn from each other. 

There is no doubt good mentors and mentoring programs can provide high level knowledge of business and work and can be a great store of personal experience, but there is a lot more to these relationships than just passing on knowledge. Thinking through the dynamics of relationships and setting realistic expectations and objectives that are underpinned by mutual respect and openness provide the best chance of success.  If you would like to learn more about mentoring join our ZOOM workshop on the subject on 18 November at 6.00pm.

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