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The Joy of Mentoring


MANY YEARS AGO, in my late thirties and with a fair amount of experience in journalism and managing teams, I was offered the possibility of having a mentor. It was part of the BBC scheme of developing young leaders. I had come to identify the mentor figure with the best bosses I had had till then, but I had never had a formal mentor outside of the department where I worked. So I leapt at the opportunity.

The first meeting was arranged, I was excited and a bit nervous too!  I knocked on his door and suddenly felt so self-aware! What would he make of me?! Before I could finish the thought ….the door opens and a very athletic young man, with a cheerful face welcomes me in.

“I’ve come to meet Tom”, I said.

“That’s me”, he replied.

I was lost for words. My brain was battling it out between the different selves. Shall I leave? No, that would be rude! Why have they paired me with someone so young to mentor me? Do they think I’m a complete newbie?

“Nice to meet you Tom” was all I managed, while surely the lines on my face and my body language were saying, “I’m just about to leave actually”.

“I’m a coach by profession “, he said with ease and confidence, “ I work in learning and development”.

Not in radio, or television? Nope! Needless to say, that day he met the mentee from hell. All I could think about was, I’ve got so much to do back in the office, why am I wasting mine and his time”.  After one more session, we decided it wasn’t going anywhere.

To this day I feel terribly embarrassed of my behaviour, but to me a mentor was a person with a lot more experience than me, a person of some rank, and of course s/he had to be much older. S/he would have answers to all my problems and possibly some therapeutic interventions too.

I have learned how important it is to listen with all your being. In Design Thinking we call it “listening for empathy”, listening in order to deeply understand.

Years have gone by and I’ve learned what a mentor is and is not. Why had I not asked what they meant by a mentor? Of course Wikipedia wasn’t around then and neither was Google. Was it because I thought I knew, or was it fear of looking ignorant? I would like to think the first, but most probably it was the latter. It makes me wonder sometimes how many wrong assumptions we hold just by not finding the courage to ask questions.

I now mentor a lot of business owners, young and old. Very often, I see a lot of my uncertainties in them, the worries, the confusion but also the drive and enthusiasm. David Clutterbuck’s “12 Habits of a Toxic Mentor” are always a great reminder on how not to do it.

I have learned how important it is to listen with all your being. In Design Thinking we call it “listening for empathy”, listening in order to deeply understand, when you are totally present and give the person your undivided attention (switch off the mobile phone is one of the tricks).

I have also learnt to curb the urge of offering solutions, or finding answers for them. This is probably my hardest. It seems, we are programmed to be helpful, to find quick answers, so we immediately move to solutions and by doing so fail to discover the problem properly. Very often what looks like a problem may well be an effect, a consequence of the real problem. Yet the first step is to identify the real problem. And this is where the power of asking questions comes into play. It is through this process of exploration, where we frame and reframe the problem, in order to get into the heart of it, that the paths to solutions become clearer.

Einstein’s famous quote hangs in my office: If I had one hour to solve a problem to save my life, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about it and five minutes thinking about the solution”.

I have enjoyed learning from my mentees as much as I hope they may learn from me. And yes, my current mentor is my 17 year old son. Get a mentor! And definitely be one!

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