Coaching and Mentoring : Mentors and Mentees - The Competency Conundrum

Professor David Clutterbuck is one of Europe's most prolific and well-known management writers and thinkers. He has written more than 40 books and hundreds of articles on cutting edge management themes. Co-founder of The European Mentoring Centre and of The item Group ( a leading provider of internal communication solutions ), David also runs a thriving international consultancy, Clutterbuck Associates, which specialises in helping people in organisations develop the skills to help others. David is perhaps best-known in recent years for his work on mentoring and coaching, on which he consults around the world. His books on mentoring are numerous, and 'Everyone needs a mentor' has become a classic piece of management literature since it was first published in 1985.

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What’s the difference between a good and a not-so-good mentor ? One of the problems both in selecting mentors for a pool and in matching individual mentors with mentees is that the answer varies according to the context and the specific needs of the mentee. Hence the title of our latest book The Situational Mentor (i), which brings together a range of views from around the world on the competencies and capabilities of an effective mentor.

An ambitious project on behalf of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council is currently attempting to map out the widest possible range of characteristics and behaviours of effective one-to-one developers. The process involves building a very extensive library of statements and asking people, who use coaching and mentoring in many different ways and circumstances to match their definitions of the role against the statement list. The aim is to bring some clarity to what should be expected when someone describes themselves as an executive coach, life coach, developmental mentor and so on. In some cases, it is to be expected that the same basic role will have more than one label; in others, the same label will have been applied to very different roles. ( For example, a mentor may be sponsoring, developmental or transformational, to name but three variations; and the terms coach and mentor are sometimes used interchangeably, sometimes with exactly opposite meanings, depending on the background of the person concerned. )

Is it possible to identify some generic skills for mentors, however ? Equally, can we identify some generic skills for mentees ? The short answer is almost certainly yes, for developmental mentors at least, but how those skills are used will vary considerably.

In our early work on what effective mentors do, we interviewed and observed dozens of mentoring pairs until a very clear picture emerged. Good mentors reinforced rapport at each meeting ( including e-meetings ). They held back from giving their own experience until the mentee had fully explored the issues and the mentor had a chance to peer well under the surface of presented issues. They summarised during the discussion, but ensured the mentee summarised at the end. They challenged and encouraged as the need arose. They talked less than 20% of the time. They made use of very good, penetrating questions, but gave considered advice when it was called for. And they made use of silence whenever a question struck home, ensuring that the mentee had sufficient reflective space to consider the implications of an insight.

What we didn’t do at that stage was pay much attention to mentee behaviours and competencies. There wasn’t even much in the academic literature about mentee behaviour, except some studies of sponsorship mentoring that explored how protégés ingratiate themselves. But observation and more recent studies, such as those by Truls Engstrom in Norway( ii ) , show that proactive behaviours by the mentee are critical in the success of the relationship. Our own current research, looking at the development of relationships over a 12 month period, reinforces that view. Although we might select mentors on the basis of particular competencies, what matters in terms of the relationship is the reciprocality of the behaviours between mentor and mentee.

So what are those reciprocal behaviours ? Some of those identified so far are:

Articulating : The mentor needs to be able to explain good practice and illustrate it through story and anecdote. S/he also needs to enthuse, coax, empathise and stimulate reflection – all through adept use of language. At the same time, the effective mentor is able to help the mentee articulate their thoughts, feelings and ideas through appropriate questioning and the use of visual aids, such as diagrams.

The mentee needs many of the same skills, to ensure that the mentor both understands the issues they present and responds in the appropriate manner. In research some years ago, we explored how coachees and mentees raised issues for discussion with their learning partner. When they asked for help with a problem, they were most likely to receive direct advice. When they talked through the thinking they had already done around the issue and made it clear they wanted more of a sounding board, that was what they usually received.

Inarticulation doesn’t have to be a matter of putting logical thoughts together and expressing them clearly. Some people are emotionally inarticulate -- they struggle to access and describe their feelings. Both incapacities can be very difficult for a mentor to manage.

Listening : Effective mentors spend less than 20% of session time talking. They recognise the importance of helping the mentee work things through and establish his or her own insights. They use questions to make frequent shifts of perspective, so that the mentee can understand the issues more fully. They are also skilled in the use of silence, often suggesting that the mentee take a few minutes to reflect quietly on a particular insight.

Mentees also need to exhibit good listening skills. Much of what the mentor says may contain subtle distinctions. In particular, the mentee needs to ensure that he or she distinguishes between the specific and the general, when accessing advice or the mentor’s experience.

Respect : Without respect on both sides, the relationship will never achieve the level of openness required. Respect is not the same as deference or ingratiation – it is based on recognition of the value of the other person’s intellect, values and experience. Along with respect for each other goes respect for oneself – an appropriate mix of self-regard and humility that allows each to question and be questioned and have confidence in their ability to bring about change.

Analytical skills : The mentoring dialogue can often seem rather shallow, if neither mentor nor mentee is prepared or able to dig deeply into the mechanics of issues. Finding the appropriate patterns, themes and connections between events is critical. Working on analysis together helps strengthen mutual understanding at several levels and builds the rapport between mentor and mentee.

Goal clarity : Mentors and mentees need to have a clear understanding of the mentee’s objectives. If these change, both need to be able to recognise that this has happened and adjust accordingly. In addition the more the mentee understands the mentor’s goals, the easier it is for them to ensure the relationship is reciprocal. Among the skills of establishing goal clarity are helping people decide what they don’t want, exploring commitment and “chunking” big objectives into smaller, more readily achievable steps.

Challenging : One of the most common complaints of mentors and mentees is that they do not feel the other person is challenging them sufficiently often or strongly. More than in almost any other environment, the mentoring relationship is one that allows constructive confrontation, where both parties find their assumptions questioned. In many cases, mentees report that this is the most useful part of the relationship, while mentors report that this is the part that provides them with the greatest intellectual stimulation.

Self-awareness : Both mentor and mentee require at least a degree of emotional intelligence to understand their own motivations and to build empathy with each other. Self-awareness is essential for the mentor, to be a proactive and insightful role model and to recognise when and how to draw appropriately on their own experience. For the mentee, self-awareness provides a practical foundation, upon which to reflect and to select what to adopt from the mentor’s advice and example

Commitment to learning : Current research suggests that commitment to learning is more important than commitment to the relationship, in terms of both appropriate behaviours and outcomes for the mentee. Mentors, who have given up active learning, tend to be more self-obsessed and directive than those, who genuinely see the relationship as an opportunity to develop their own skills and acquire new understandings. As research by Truls Engstrom has shown, altruism is not sufficient as a motivator for a mentor.

Reflection / preparation : Alongside lack of time to meet, one of the principal reasons mentoring relationships fail is that one or both parties fails to invest time in thinking through, either before or after the mentoring dialogue. With e-mail, there really is no excuse in most circumstances for the mentee not to forewarn the mentor a few days ahead of what s/he would like to talk about. In preparing for the meeting, the mentor should attempt to establish the facts about their issue, explore what they want to achieve from the dialogue with the mentor and, where possible, identify some examples to illustrate the dilemma they face. Some effective mentees hold an imaginary conversation with the mentor, to provide greater depth to their preparation. After the mentoring session, the mentee should always spend at least an hour reflecting on what has been said and examining the implications more deeply.

The mentor also needs to spend time ahead of the meeting, considering “how can I help ?” “how have I helped ?”. And after the meeting, “how did I help ?”

Process management : Effective mentors have the style flexibility to adapt to a variety of mentee needs. They also have sufficient of a store of techniques and generic questions to vary their responses as needed. They also demonstrate an awareness of how the relationship evolves – when to encourage the mentee to engage in the process, when to review progress and when to gradually disengage from the formal relationship, empowering the mentee to become self-sufficient.

Effective mentees have sufficient understanding of the mentoring process to contribute to it – helping the mentor help them. This proactive behaviour equips them in turn with the skills and confidence to become mentors themselves, in due course.

There are some competencies, which may be needed by the mentor or mentee only – for example, the mentor needs to have a sense of the big picture and to be able to draw on a deeper or wider range of experience ( “been there, seen it, done it” ), without imposing this knowledge upon the mentee. However, the majority of the competencies, as we have seen, are mutual in nature.

What happens, if one of the parties lacks some of these skills ? In some mentoring environments – for example, programmes aimed at teenagers at risk – the mentees have few, if any of the competencies. In these cases, a range of additional support services may be needed to help the mentees make good use of the mentoring opportunity.

Where the mentor lacks key skills, it may prevent the relationship getting off the ground, or reduce the range of benefits the mentee, the mentor and the organisation achieve. Hence the importance of relationship review – discussion between mentor and mentee about how the relationship is working – in defining areas, for skills improvement. Many mentoring pairs say that the fact that they have to complete questionnaires about relationship expectations, behaviours and outcomes stimulates them to discuss these issues. Unfortunately, only a minority of programmes insist that this review takes place.

Where the review process is supplemented by opportunities for mentors ( and where possible, mentees ) to share learning and practise new skills, the quality of the relationships and the programme as a whole tends to be high. Supervision by more experienced mentors also has a positive impact.

For the mentor operating in a non-professional context, it isn’t necessary to be super-competent in all the areas outlined above. It’s normally sufficient to be “good enough” and to be committed to a gradual development of capabilities in the role. More is expected of the professional mentor – for example, a much higher level of knowledge of behaviour and/or psychology – but the same broad rules apply to them – nobody’s perfect and the hallmark of a good mentor is their openness and ability to grow helping someone else grow.

( i )   Clutterbuck, D and Lane, G, The Situational Mentor, Gower, Aldershot, 2004

( ii )  Engstrom, T, Personality factors’ impact on success in the mentor-protégé relationship MSc thesis to Norwegian School of Hotel Management, 1997/8

© David Clutterbuck June 2004

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