What is Mentoring, and what can I expect to gain?


“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.”

— Oprah Winfrey

Mentoring is not a mystery. Nor is it new. We are all mentors. We all, to a larger or lesser degree learn by observing others. A mother smiling at her new born baby until it learns to smile back is a mentor. A child in the playground looking intently at his peers on the jungle-gym before copying them is learning from others. Teachers, lecturers, parents, business leaders, leaders in society, politicians, sports coaches, music teachers – we are all either showing someone how to do something or learning how to do something.

Mentoring is important because “every day is a school day”, meaning every day we wake up we have an opportunity to teach someone, and to learn from someone. Every encounter with another person is an opportunity to co-create learning, to share ideas, thoughts, and information through the critical art of conversation. We all do it, but many of us are either not aware or we are frightened away by the notion that it requires a range of complex skills.

Life is the simple evolution of thoughts and consequent behaviours, the distilled wisdom of the ages that is transferred from one generation to the next. Historically wisdom was passed on orally through song and dialogue. As mankind mastered the art of writing and recorded values, principles, norms, policies and procedures – these were then passed on to the next generation in text form. Scriptures, philosophy, law and even cookery books give us a glimpse into life before the common era. As we evolve as a civilisation we simply continue to place stone after stone on the cairn began all those years ago.

Mentoring simply brings the distilled knowledge of the ages together with personal experience in a practical manner that makes it relevant to the mentee.

Is it really just as simple as reading a few books and having a couple of discussions that constitutes mentoring? Yes, it is both of these, but for mentoring to be effective and meaningful, we need to co-create a structured program that suits the needs of the mentee. This is important as we need to manage expectations as well as to define what mentoring is not.

What is mentoring not?

A recent meeting with the head of student affairs at a local university highlighted just how misunderstood the notion of mentoring is. I was part of a team establishing a mentoring program for the universities alumni department wanting to create a platform for alumni to share their skills, experience and wisdom with fellow alumni and current students.

I was extremely positive about the initiative as I had recently implemented a similar program where the impact was enormous. An institution which was largely separated into current students and old boys was united by the simple process of creating a platform for skilful, wise, experienced and connected persons become energised by spending time with eager, enthusiastic and energetic young students.

The program had many benefits. Most importantly it created an environment where individuals with a single purpose forged relationship across generations, races, creeds, cultures, genders and professions. These co-created relationships were of mutual benefits as the student might learn about the complexities of corporate governance whilst the mentor learns about social media.

The head of student affairs, a psychologist, was horrified, “never, these “so called” mentors are not trained therapists, we could soon be dealing with depression and suicides on an unprecedented scale.” The program was not implemented.

Her response was not unexpected as the process of mentoring is not fully understood. At best it is confused with formalised coaching and at worst with therapy which are both important and both have a place – but they are not mentoring.

The need for mentoring is even greater today!

My experience in business as well as in life generally has taught me that mentoring is the single most important factor for leading a successful, fulfilled life. I say business and life because when mentoring, I see no difference between the boardroom and the bedroom – it’s the same person who simply has a life divided into portfolios: spouse, parent, employee and more.

When I began working there was very little business literature. Businesses developed their own unique structure, systems and culture. The result was in order to replicate the DNA of the business you needed to develop your own training programs and train staff “in-house”.

If you left school and wanted to be a sales representative in FMCG, you joined a company as an assistant merchandiser. The merchandiser would show you where the stores in your cycle were. He/she would introduce you to the store manager. Show you were the goods receiving was. Where your products were stored. Guide you through the first daunting sales meetings at head office. Teach the basic skills of merchandising: eye level is buy level, category management, how to fight for shelf space, what products never to go out of stock on, what a promotion was, what a gondola end was and how to treat the staff instore to make your job easier. If you were successful, you were appointed to the permanent staff and the training wheels came off. After some time in this position he would be promoted through the ranks of junior sales representative, sales representative, regional sales manager, and if good enough the national sales. This process was common across all job functions. We can call it in-house training, apprenticeship, traineeship and more – but the truth is it was simply a transfer of knowledge, information and experience – mentoring. And it took time and patience.

Think of it this way, the day you left school you had certain knowledge but very little experience. By experience I mean the kind of experience one cannot gain through reading books or looking it up on google. Many people I mentor comment, “if only I had a person I could speak to, someone who had experience in the situations I faced whilst at school I would have avoided so many elementary mistakes, done so many things differently and saved a lot of time and wasted emotional energy. How can we avoid this?

By sharing our insight with young people or those moving into the professions and trades. One well thought out idea or well-made choice is worth years of wasted time and regrets. This is all the more necessary given the skills shortage that sees young graduates assuming more and more responsibility before they are ready. Furthermore, these same young graduates come with heightened expectations. The notion of building a career entails does not mean a “job for life” and slowly progressing through the ranks. They are a brand of one wanting as many different experiences on their CV as possible. Their careers are like their email addresses rather than their post-box number, they move around to develop themselves rather than waiting in one place for things to improve.

In my experience the best institutions achieve the greatest return on their human capital when they establish a formal and/or informal mentoring program. Naturally these must be tailored to suit the needs of each institution as well as those of the individual.

As each company requires mentoring aligned with its needs and culture, so too will the individual require a wide variety of choices: first time employment requires the employee to adjust to the workplace – meetings, politics, change, their relationship management, workplace etiquette and more. Mentoring executives means providing a more strategic insight. Whilst business training for small, medium enterprises requires a broad spectrum of skills including moving from start-up by establishing policies and procedures without using the entrepreneurial spirit. Career mentoring and life skill mentoring mean less of a focus on technical skills and more on general career development. In some instances, it can be one or many of the above depending on the needs of the mentee.

If mentoring appears to benefit so many, why did the head of student affairs have such an aversion to establishing a mentoring system? It can’t be that it is a novel idea?

Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”— John Crosby