Having an experienced advisor on hand to guide you through the ups and down of your career sounds too good to be true, but many ITers are now benefiting from having their own mentor.
Mentoring is not a new concept, but it is becoming more common in businesses. According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development entitled Training and Development 2001 published in April 2001, some 13.7% of the 502 training managers surveyed said that most of the management and professionals in their organisations had an appointed coach or mentor. And 49.2% claimed that some of the management and professionals were using a mentor.
Last month, building society Nationwide announced it was introducing a mentoring scheme to help increase the number of women in senior management positions. It aims to break the glass ceiling for women by having junior female managers shadow senior females in the organisation.
Imogen Daniels, an advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes mentoring can also help companies retain staff, who become more motivated by the experience. "If it is properly managed, mentoring will develop a result. I think mentoring plays a key role in keeping staff who might otherwise be tempted to jump ship," says Daniels.
The term mentoring covers a broad range of activities, from the most basic form of assistance, such as a company induction, to high-level project management tasks.
It is often used to support graduate trainees, new recruits, people facing a career change or redundancy.
Helen Fisher, a director at business psychology consultancy Nicholson-McBride, says that mentoring can help people perform more effectively. "Companies recruit people with technical skills and then promote them without giving them leadership training. One thing that coaching can do is equip people who are promoted quickly with the skills they need for their new role."
Daniels explains, "A mentor is somebody who is there to help you develop within the organisation in a different way to your manager.
"While your line manager is there to assess performance and maintain discipline, a mentor is developing you and looking at possibilities for you."
Mentors can be sourced externally, but it is now quite common for companies to pair up individuals from different departments. Daniels says the relationship will need to generate quality feedback, which may mean the mentor has to undergo training.
Larry Gardiner, a project manager at Compaq Professional Services in Holland, was assigned a mentor when he joined the company 18 months ago. "My mentor was somebody in the organisation who was not in my line structure. Someone who could advise me in an unbiased way and help me develop my career here," he explains. "We agreed a confidentiality undertaking which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been breached. I was able to specify the kind of learning style I wanted and the subject areas or issues that I most wanted to address."
Gardiner believes that an in-house mentor has more relevance to the job because the guidance comes from somebody who understands the company's objectives, client base and procedures.
Daniels agrees. "It helps if they are senior enough to have a good understanding of the corporate structure and company values. They can give those being mentored access to information and resources they would not normally get. While they don't have to work with the person, they do need to have a certain level of knowledge about the areas they work in," he says.
While mentors are there to help guide an individual through challenges, they are not there to take control. "They need to be able to advise and instruct without interfering," says Daniels, "allowing the people they are mentoring to come to their own decisions - almost like a counselling relationship."
Fisher says mentors can also provide employees with valuable feedback. "They can give individuals some evidence about how their performance is being perceived by others, which means they can also help measure progress."
Daniels says the role of a mentor is to help individuals identify what they want out of a job, and what they would like to see changed within an organisation. According to Daniels, a successful mentoring partnership should incorporate:
- Defined boundaries
- Honesty and openness
- A clear purpose at the start - relevant to an individual's and organisation's strategy.
"Mentoring is all about developing self-awareness," says Daniels. "A good mentor will help you examine your personality, what motivates you, how you feel about work and how you establish yourself and network.
"Mentors need to be good listeners, motivators and be perceptive. People who know what questions to ask and who are high performers themselves and secure in their own position - so they will not feel threatened by their charge's capabilities." After being mentored himself, Gardiner is now looking after a Swedish project manager. His first task was to define the terms of reference for the engagement. "We worked out what he wanted to get from me," says Gardiner. "He specified deliverables that I had to arrange for him - some simply involved putting him on a training course. I then set him some challenges. For example, how to plan an exit strategy, and challenged him to inform himself about what is going on in the industry and to relate it directly to his skill area - which encouraged him to become more business-focused."
Gardiner believes he has benefited from the process of being a mentor. "Mentoring stimulates me to learn more myself. It is satisfying to remember what I have learned and pass it on.
"I have remained good friends with the person that mentored me. Mentoring can be a very worthwhile experience on the receiving end and providing a mentoring opportunity for new staff can be enjoyable and a very satisfying experience in itself."
Fisher agrees. "Mentoring can be quite a fulfiling role if you are going to do it internally. If you are doing it well, it is rewarding to see someone you've been mentoring really develop," he says.
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This was first published in May 2001