Mentoring: Pros & Cons

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In a front page editorial, "Give youths access to the working world," the Toronto Globe and Mail says:

"Young people need real connections to the job market, a helping hand to make their resumes rise and sing.  That's why Canada needs a national mentorship program, to help smooth the transition to the world of work."

That thought makes me cheer and cringe at the same time.  Cheer, because it's so true.  People, whether young, old, just starting or mid-career, need to understand their options in this ever changing chaotic scene that the Globe and Mail charmingly calls the "world of work."  Cringe, because I think very few people have the training or attitude to be a good mentor.  Mentoring is not about the seasoned executive or professional taking the grateful neophyte out for a cup of coffee and filling their head with war stories of a bygone era. 

To succeed, the mentoring conversation has to be driven by the mentee (the traditional word is "protege," but nobody seems to use it any more).  That's right.  This isn't about the mentor passing on pearls of wisdom, it's about helping the mentee discern and accomplish their goals.  A good mentor doesn't dole out answers.  They ask the right questions:

  • Have you considered the risks of . . . ?
  • How long will that take?  What if it takes twice that amount of time?
  • What relationships will you need to establish?
  • What resources are required?  How will you finance it?
  • How will you balance your personal life?

It is possible to have a formal mentorship program.  I have been both a mentor and a mentee in a program sponsored by the Project Management Institute.  We had a day of training, both as mentors and mentees.  We established a written contract around how often and where we would meet (at least 1 hour per week).  It was up to the mentee to set the agenda in advance of each meeting.  The mentees asked the questions and they worked with their mentor to find their answers.  Because we were all in project management, we had a common language, but even still, the organizers spent a great deal of time carefully matching mentees to mentors.

Being a mentee was very helpful in applying theoretical concepts in real world situations.  Being a mentor was rewarding in that I was able to help a foreign professional adapt to the cultural differences he faced.  I helped him understand the messages he was getting from his boss as well as develop strategies for moving ahead.  At the same time, I learned about another world of work that was (literally) foreign to me.

At its best, a mentoring relationship is win/win/win (mentor, mentee and society), but we need to implement carefully and on a small scale.  No national programs, please!

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