Mentoring: Building Relationships for Success

In any company or organization people should be their most important assets, and their success is tightly linked to mentoring. Therefore, thinking about what it means to be a mentor and to receive mentoring is paramount.  

Let’s understand more deeply the origin of the word and how the concept has evolved.

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Image courtesy of Tony Sullivan at Flickr.com

Origin of the word “mentor”

The origin of the word mentor can be traced back Homer’s Odyssey and it was inspired by the character named Mentor.  While Odysseus, king of Ithaca, was away fighting the Trojan War, Mentor helped raise Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.  Mentor became Telemachus’ counselor, teacher, nurturer, protector, advisor, role model, challenger and encourager.   The concept of “mentoring” was developed from this.

Currently, the term mentor is used in English in its most basic definition to refer to a person that imparts wisdom and shares wisdom with a less experienced colleague.  

Understanding a Mentoring Relationship Better

In the conventional way, a mentoring relationship has been considered an exchange where one participant has more experience, skill, knowledge than the other.  Nonetheless, many solid mentoring relationships have provided a favorable situation for both parties to learn from each other through cultivating a caring, respectful and inspirational partnership.  Yes.  Partnership. That is the key concept.

A professional mentor can always help a person reach their goals in their professional career.  But the real goal of mentoring is the partnership itself, not mastering knowledge or a person.  A strong mentoring relationship is based on partnership and the commitment to the professional development of one or both of participants involved. It means facilitating the learning journey.  It means reciprocity.  It means the mentors will help the learners be the best they can be; likewise, the learners will help the mentors as well to be the best they can be.  Surveys have shown that those who receive effective mentoring show positive outcomes in many areas such as increased productivity, academic and professional success.  

But there are challenges that a mentoring relationship faces as well.  Let’s take a look at some those challenges and possible suggestions to overcome them.

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Image courtesy of Brian Ujiie at Flickr.com

Challenges of Mentoring

Mentoring can be challenging but highly rewarding as well.  Some of the potential challenges are:

  • The learner’s inner motivation and trust. The motivation of the learner and not the wisdom of the mentor is crucial to the relationship; but it is the authenticity of the mentor what helps encourage a kind of relationship that will cause the learner to feel comfortable, and to be able trust.  Humility and genuiness are mentor qualities that demonstrate learners a relationship that is not based on dominance or power.  Mentors should be attentive, welcoming and confident. 
  • Learning is about taking risks. To face this challenge, mentors have to create an environment that would be like a safe haven for their learner in order to feel comfortable and take the risk to grow and learn.  Mentors can expand their learners’ comfort zone because learning does not take place without errors. Mistakes and failings result in learning.  We are not talking about supporting foolish, reckless failing, but encouraging learners to go the extra mile and learning from failing in the attempt.  Bottom line: mentors are encouraging their learners to take risks and risk failing, but they also provide support when the mistake occurs. 
  • Mentors are not just passing information but creating insights and fostering discovery.  On the one hand, mentors should encourage learners acknowledge their learning goal or performance issue, because once they agree that improvement is necessary, mentors need to give advice without a proud, controlling or coercing attitude that would end up in the learner’s resistance.  The mentor can ask for feedback on the usefulness of their advice.  If this is a partnership, and the true motivation is to give good empowering advice, then the learner is key to help the mentor be better.  

On the other hand, mentors need to support learners achieve independence by helping them eliminate those mental patterns that hinder them from learning new things and finding new ways of seeing things.  It is about showing empathy, assistance and care.

  • Learners do not learn just for the sake of learning, but for the application.  It is not about a mere outpouring of technical knowledge. It is about providing support to transfer the learning acquired from the partnership to application in the work world.  

A mentoring partnership is a powerful way to help individuals develop and progress in an organization but it works both ways.  Mentors are learning through the process as well. The keys for building a successful mentoring relationship are to encourage trust, motivation and autonomy to face the risks that the partnership poses, to establish goals and responsibilities, to communicate effectively and solve problems as a team.  The benefits harvested from the relationship will be worth the effort.

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