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Monday, December 9, 2013

What is mentoring?

...to enlist wise counsel.

The other day someone asked me to mentor them. I was a little surprised that someone should ask me to be a mentor. After all what did I know that someone else should ask me to be a mentor? And anyway, I need mentoring myself! I may have felt honored but deep down I knew I was inadequate and technically incompetent to carry out the request. After all, I consider myself a professional – I only do what I know. However, since the person persisted that I be it, I decided there must be some science to the process.

I have been a teacher, trainer, lecturer, facilitator, coach, leader, entrepreneur, author and consultant. In all those roles, I have always made it clear that there is a significant difference between all of them. On occasion, I have said that mentorship involves some if not all of those roles but is also separate from all of them – even though I had never defined mentorship on its own.

After reading a few books and evaluating my thoughts on the subject, I settled on defining mentoring as "enlisting wise counsel" or "enlisting the counsel of the wise". This differs from the other roles I have been comfortable with in one significant regard. Mentoring is NOT driven or even determined by the mentor. Mentoring is engineered by the "mentee". Mentoring cannot be imposed.  The mentor is really a secondary part of the mentoring equation. The difference between a student and a mentee is that a student may not choose the teacher, but the mentee always has the privilege to choose a mentor. This leaves a mentor somewhat flawed, awed and confused, because the mentor has literally no power of control in the relationship. A mentee says "tell me what I need to know, but I will decide if I will act on it or not". The mentor is powerless to enforce or coerce. I think this is why people don't like being a mentor. It may be prestigious, but it is a totally powerless position. You can take no glory from it. You are on the sidelines and can be ditched at any time.

The mentoring process is not only the mentees initiative, but it is also ascribes wisdom on the mentor. This causes the feeling of inadequacy and trauma because by the time the mentee asks to be mentored, they have already taken the proposed mentor through a pre-selection and evaluation process of which the mentor is totally ignorant. This can be very unsettling. The mentee decides what is "wise" or who is wise. How do you describe, determine or define who is "wise". Wisdom has no technical or professional competence. It is more of a personal quality. A mentee may choose to draw wisdom from a clerk rather than the senior engineer.  

Mentees generally select people with more experience to mentor them. They choose someone who has more exposure to a thing. However, not every experienced person is chosen to be a mentor. The mentor must show cause why they should be personally chosen to mentor. The only difference between two experienced people is what they have become as a result of that experience – that's character. 

The third qualification for a mentor I find is understanding – NOT knowledge. Mentees generally have a lot of knowledge, indeed it takes one to have significant knowledge before it dawns on you to seek out a mentor. A mentor is supposed to help you sort out issues and interpret difficult situations. If mentees lacked knowledge, they would easily enlist a teacher. Amazingly ,the one thing all mentees seek out is someone who will listen.

So where do you find people who have experience, character, understanding and can listen? That is the six million dollar question because no one I know goes to school to study and excel in these things and neither do they set out in careers to achieve these things. These qualities are things you pick up as you go through your career. Some people acquire the first but not all four. In other words, a mentor is who you are, not what you aim to become or qualify to be. If someone choses you as a mentor it is a great honor, and very flattering, but you really have very little choice in the matter. All you can do is agree or respectfully decline as it is not possible to give adequate reasons (for yourself) to be or not to be a mentor.

Allan Bukusi

 

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