Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Mentor's Horror Story

It started as a conversation over coffee about the differences between mentoring and coaching but it soon emerged that my colleague was pretty traumatized by her own mentoring experience.
My colleague, a skilled communicator and experienced professional, had volunteered to be a mentor in a program lasting six months. She'd quit in frustration after a few meetings with the mentoree. She was seeking to understand whether she'd misunderstood the mentoring concept, or in some way got the mentor role wrong.
As her story unfolded, it became clear that despite her best efforts, mentoring had not only failed, it had left both parties frustrated, hurt and angry. What went wrong? Why did it, literally, end in tears?
Both mentor and mentoree had volunteered and been matched in a formal mentoring program. A contract was signed and meetings followed. The mentor, attempted to facilitate the mentoring process by asking questions, listening and prompting reflection and self-direction. She restricted expression of her own opinions and expert input to those times when the mentoree explicitly requested answers. The mentor provided guidance through feedback and discouraged dependence by getting the mentoree to choose her own actions. The mentor encouraged her mentoree to complete assignments that were part of the program.
However, the mentoree seemed to expect the mentor to do tasks for her, give specific instructions, or to respond more as a paid consultant might in delivering services. She became more and more demanding, hostile and critical, even on a personal level, of the mentor.
The relationship deteriorated. Clearly, neither party was enjoying the process and outcomes were less than optimum. The mentor requested support from program organizers but obtained no response. Things went from bad to worse. The mentor quit.
Like most problems, there is not a single cause. In my view, the outcome was a result of a number of major flaws in the mentoring program. These include:
1. Inadequate participant selection
2. Insufficient preparation and follow-up of participants
3. Under-resourcing the program
Participant Selection
Mentors and mentoree's volunteer for this program. There are criteria for selection but these relate to goals and work experience, not readiness for mentoring. Not everyone is suitable to be a mentor and not every one is receptive to mentoring. Attitude and motivation are critical to the success of a mentoring relationship. The expectations of both participants need to be realistic and in alignment.
Participants in a mentoring program should be selected with as much care as if you were recruiting them to work for you. Therefore, an application form that draws out participant expectations of mentoring is important. Interviews designed to elicit their attitudes to the process of mentoring will increase the likelihood of positive outcomes.
Preparation and Follow-up
People need to be crystal clear about their roles and how to approach mentoring. Education and specific guidance from the outset, regular follow-up and ongoing support for participants is essential.
Program organizers need to check in with mentors and mentorees to ensure that the relationship is progressing satisfactorily. They should be available and able to assist when difficulties arise and if problems cannot be resolved, facilitate exit from the relationship. If a mentoring relationship is discontinued, the program coordinator should debrief participants to minimize negative after effects and elicit constructive insights for self-development.
Program Resourcing
Mentoring does not have to be expensive but the above example shows the cost of running a program on a shoestring so that immediate and adequate support for participants is not available. You can't properly select participants, train them and support them when appropriate resources are not available.
Done properly, mentoring is a very cost-effective strategy that offers a significant return on investment. Yet mentoring is often given a low budget. Underestimating what is required in terms of time, money, materials and human resources is common. An adequate budget can only be determined through a thorough and well-informed planning process. If funds are limited, choices can be made about how to get the best value from what is available.
Finally, our enthusiasm to celebrate success in mentoring should be matched with equal attention to lack of success. Typically, we want to focus on the good news stories and positive outcomes of mentoring. It's easy to assume participants themselves are to blame for breakdowns in relationships or lack of results and while sometimes this might be valid, you won't know unless you take an objective look at all facets of the program. Therefore, evaluation must look at what worked as well as what didn't and why that was the case. Failure can be as valuable as success if it is instructive. That's how mentoring works!