Friday, 30 September 2011

Thing 11: Mentoring. Me and Helen Keller

Looking back, my first encounter with the idea of mentoring was when I was 12 years old. I was reading about Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. I found the book inspiring, and it was one of the motivators for later choosing to go into a 'helping' profession, and work with people.

So what is mentoring?
  • A developmental tool to promote change in individuals
  • A formal role model who teaches, encourages or supports
  • A process to help individuals personal or professional development
Not all mentors will have such a profound impact on someone else's life as Annie Sullivan, and I've personally experienced both 'good' and 'bad' examples of mentors.

My first experience of being mentored was a poor one. I'd recently joined a library that had gone through a high-impact change. The team was fragmented. A 'buddy' system was put in place, with all new members of staff paired with an experienced member of the team. I had no choice over my mentor. It was clear we didn't like or trust each other. The conditions to foster a good mentoring relationship were poor, and I was grateful when the idea was slowly forgotten about.

My second experience was a much more positive one and it's a relationship that still exists. Moving into a new role as an Information Specialist, I found myself with a manager who had many years of experience working in specialist and technical roles but was new to managing a team. She became my role model. I was enthusiastic about my job, but still learning how to be creative in finding solutions to the queries I was dealing with. I found we worked well together. As a line manager, she was supportive and encouraging. Provided me with specific feedback that enabled me to improve my work. She was never afraid to either challenge me to do better or praise my work. I strived hard within the role to improve my skills and get better at what I did. I approached her if I needed a second opinion, or to offer my own idea's. She was never afraid to let me try something out, and adopted a 'yes' approach, enabling me to grow within the role. It was only when she moved on from the role and I found myself with a new line manager that I realised how lucky I had been.

When I made the decision last year to complete Acilip, I approached her and asked her to be my mentor. Much to my delight, she agreed. It's made the process so much easier. In the space of nine months she has
  • Enabled me to complete a skills assessment, and identify my strengths and weaknesses
  • Turned a muddle of thoughts about Acilip into a clear step-by-step path for completion
  • Challenged me to create a Personal Development Plan that was realistic and met my own goals
  • Provided a focus to enable me to concentrate on the stuff that mattered - and dump the rest
I've also just acquired another mentor, within my own workplace. It's not that I'm greedy, (or needy!), but for me, the two mentors are helping me to achieve two different things. I'm using someone within my organisation to help me apply for a promotion and make a leap into working at the next level up. I've specifically chosen someone who is working at a higher level in an area of the business that has similar goals to mine. I'm also aware she has faced the same challenges as me, so I'm interested in her perspective. The mentoring scheme was a grassroots initiative set up a 'Community of Interest' in my organisation. Participants advertise their services as mentors, and potential mentee's get in contact. There is also space for a mentee to put a call out for a mentor to assist them with a specific task. For both participants, it's very much about professional development with both gaining benefits from the partnership.

As for me, I like to think I've learned how to be a good mentee over the years. My rules:
  • Understand what it is you want to gain from the process, and what kind of mentor you are looking for. You need to pick the right person with the right skills and qualities for the job.
  • Trust your mentor. Have confidence that they are acting in your best interests. If you doubt that, find a different mentor, you're in the wrong relationship.
  • Stay engaged in the process. You've both made a commitment, so accept the challenges they chuck your way with a smile.
  • Be prepared to take risks. Step out of your comfort zone. Learn from your mistakes. It's the only way you will see movement in the right direction. Progress!
  • Keep a reflective diary or a learning log. Actually write in it.
  • Be prepared to talk and share knowledge. Be prepared to listen and receive knowledge.
  • Don't expect your mentor to do the work for you, to manage you or set you deadlines, or even to give you the answers.
  • It's a relationship. Keep in contact. Revisit the basic's every now and then and make sure that the arrangement is still working for both of you.
I'm just starting out as a mentor for a colleague. Eventually, I hope to establish my rules for being a good mentor. I just need to figure them out first.

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