Positive Mentoring Matters

What do you think?

This is a question I heard many times during my masters education at Hyper Island, a global learning provider for transformative learning experiences from Sweden. Our lecturers rarely gave us solutions, instead they wanted to challenge us to find their own solutions, in order to grow personally and professionally. Giving us authority over our own learning through exploration, constant feedback and deep reflection, people gain deeper self-awareness, become better selves, team members and leaders. I also remember using  the very same question “What do you think?” in an Aikido like reverse move on my lecturers, much to the delight of my fellow students, because I finally wanted to get some answers from them. Nevertheless I believe it is a powerful, encouraging question that became an essential technique for my own lecturing and mentoring practice.

When I look back at my own career one thing I truly regret is missing out on looking for mentors early on to help me develop and grow. That said, while I did not receive much formal or professional mentoring, I certainly received mentoring informally many times from individuals I highly value. The latter one is often less planned and structured, and both people involved probably never even think to call this a mentor-mentee relationship. Instead they might call it friendship or friendly advice, which often covers not just career related topics, but goes beyond, like giving guidance and advice in matters such as relationships.    

The Origin of Mentorship

Mentorship comes straight out of greek mythology. Mentor was the son of Heracles and Asopis. In his old age Mentor he was a friend of Odysseus, who had placed him in charge as a wise guide and protector of his son Telemachus, when Odysseus left for the Trojan War. Truth is, it wasn’t actually Mentor who provided Telemachus, the son of Odysseus with the much needed guidance, it was the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena disguised as Mentor. From its historical origins till today mentoring has changed a lot and we can distinguish the two main different views.

Traditional view of mentoring:

  • The mentor picks a protégé
  • A mentor is someone more senior
  • Mentor and mentee have a lot in common 
  • Mentoring is for young, less experienced people
  • Mentors give advice
  • Mentors tell you what to do

More contemporary view of mentoring:

  • The mentee seeks mentors
  • A mentor is someone you can learn from regardless of age or position
  • Difference provides potential for greater discovery, challenge & growth
  • Mentoring is for anyone at any stage of life or career
  • Mentors assist your decision-making & problem-solving

The Value of Mentoring

“The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches but to reveal to him his own” (Benjamin Disraeli)
Mentoring describes a form of relationship which is not a linear but a dynamic process. Like in any relationship, it takes two to work.  It’s a collaborative relationship of equals. Mentoring is a synergistic relationship between an often but not necessarily less experienced mentee and a more experienced mentor, who uses their professional and life experience to support the mentee develop and advance their career. It’s not about one person telling the other what to do. It’s about one person helping the other reflect on their own experience, make informed decisions and act upon the ideas that are generated.

The role of the mentee is to:

  • Develop the agenda and determine what you would like to get out of it
  • Share thoughts and reflect on questions
  • Seek feedback and ideas
  • Commit to actions 

The role of the mentor is to:

  • Listen
  • Ask helpful and insightful questions
  • Share useful insights and experience
  • Provide support, praise and constructive feedback

Unrealistic expectations about what mentoring can achieve can undermine its effectiveness and confusion about the role and responsibilities can lead to disappointment. 

What’s your understanding of Mentorship, Dr. Gabriele Sauberer? 

I have long experience as a mentor for highly qualified migrants in Austria. What I learned, and would like to share, is to clearly define the goals – and the non-goals – of mentoring. If this is clear for both the mentee and the mentor, the results and feedback from both sides will be more satisfying. Mentoring is and always has been very enjoyable and rewarding. 

Both sides need to  understand that mentoring is not about finding a good job or being coached, but about inspiring and being inspired, it’s about thinking out of the box and playing with different perspectives. After “What do you think?” the next interesting question might be “What if?”

A mentor should be willing to share contacts and networks with his or her mentee. This is a matter of trust, of course. A mentor should also trust his or her contacts, that they are truly committed to support the mentor and the mentee. It can be very disappointing when expectations are high and remain unmet. To open up networks and introduce the mentee in his or her own communities is the most important thing a mentor can do for a mentee, I believe. 

A big difference in age is not necessary. I once had a mentee from an international women leadership network who was older than me – and she loved the mentoring. She was about to make a considerable career move into a top position at a multinational company. She found our discussions very helpful, in particular the different perspectives from many other countries, cultures and  industries I could give her.

The Difference Between Mentoring and Coaching

Coaching and mentoring have a lot in common but are not the same. The differences are subtle and similar skills needed are similar for both. The differences are probably best understood by looking at their purpose. Coaching is rather used when there is a well-defined goal often related to improving skills and performance. Whereas Mentoring is used for career planning, providing general guidance, defining and achieving goals, making decisions or facilitating problem solving. Another difference is that most of the time, mentoring is non-directive so mentees take responsibility for decisions and actions. 

In my humble opinion coaching is often more of a transactional relationship, where the coach receives value in coin and less in gratitude and appreciation. It’s not so much a relationship of equals, but rather a defined mandate where the benefit, learning and improvement is focused on the person receiving coaching.  

Generally speaking, what both have in common is a one-to-one interaction to achieve personalised learning and growth which complements training and education. Both use a facilitated process that caters to individual needs in order to achieve positive outcomes through guidance and self-reflection.

The Relationship of Mentoring and Positive Psychology

According to Martin Seligman, Positive psychology is the scientific study of human strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive. Whereas the combination of Positive Psychology and Coaching is widely known and applied in a systematic way through Positive psychology coaching (PPC), Mentoring and Positive Psychology is attracting attention only recently even though both naturally share the same mission of helping and supporting to become a better version of oneself and to flourish in life. 

Mentoring benefits from positive psychology interventions and practices such as:

  • Positive Emotions – Expressing gratitude and practice optimism regarding the future
  • Engagement – Being present and utilising our strength to meet a challenge
  • Relationships – Nurturing relationships 
  • Meaning – Commit to and realize meaningful/purposeful goals 
  • Accomplishments – Realize and savor positive experiences and achievements

    *Further information can be found at: https://www.duodecim.fi/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2016/09/kesakoulu2016_radu.pdf

Practitioners of Positive Psychology benefit from Mentoring:

Mentors report that the practice of mentoring provides many of the characteristics to raise their level of happiness which positively affects our health, our change of living a longer life, our quality of relationships, our creativity and productivity as well as, achieving greater success. 

  • Giving back and receiving gratitude 
  • Applying personal strengths 
  • Creating new and meaningful relationships 
  • Realizing a sense of progress and achievement 
  • Gaining new perspectives and insights 

*Further information can be found at: https://www.amazon.de/Mentoring-Positive-Psychology-Perspective-Learning/dp/3319409816

When I look back at my first mentoring session for the SOS-Incubator I have a very vivid memory of the energy, enthusiasm and optimism the participants were sharing. After the event I was buzzing from the refreshing energy and the support I could provide to help them individually to succeed with their startup ideas. We will share more on this mentoring process in another, upcoming article once the incubator programme in the form of a retrospective. 

How-to find a Mentor?

Many people are happy to be a mentor, but they won’t offer until they are asked. So if you are looking for a mentor and you have a suitable person in mind, go ahead and ask them. In this case ASK is actually a model standing for Appreciate, Seek, Know-How sharing.

“Appreciate” – Approach the person and let them know how you feel. E.g. tell them that you admire their qualities or experience and tell them that they already are in a place (job role, successful and accomplished) where you want to be. All people like compliments about skills they possess which you want to learn and improve at. As a mentee you therefore need to be clear about what you are looking for and be able to communicate your goals and the support you need once you find a potential mentor. 

“Seek” – Start with people you already know, friends, colleagues, peers or people you have met before. Expand your own network by asking these people for recommendations, and introduce you to people in their network could be a good match. Remember that it is of utmost importance to build a good relationship with the person you’d like to have as a mentor. Mentor relationships evolve. Simon Sinek points out that you cannot just approach a random person and ask will you be my mentor, just like you cannot walk up to a random person and ask will you be my friend. Also consider that different people may be able to support in different ways, so you might need to find more than one mentor.

“Know-How Sharing” – Mentorship is a two way street where both parties are there voluntarily and for their mutual benefit. Therefore mentees need to think about what they can offer in return for their mentors investment of time and effort. It’s important that the mentor-mentee relationship is a reciprocal one.

(Famous) last words:

Becoming a Mentor is an investment of time and effort, but the results are totally worth it. Finding a mentor, an ally who cares about your personal progress and development is invaluable no matter your age and experience. In our careers we tend to be concerned too much with big names, in the sense of working for industry leaders or high profile brands, and too less concerned about the people we want to work with and learn from. So look out for genuine people who want to help you grow. 

If you would like to read more about the SOS-Kinderdorf startup incubator, read the report (in German) by Nadine Schulte who is participating in the program: here

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