Mentoring: what to keep in mind

20 March 2015

[Editor’s note: Mentoring has become one of the preferred ways of supporting think tanks. The Think Tank Initiative launched a capacity developing programme that placed mentors at its core. And we have been actively promoting mentoring with think tanks, including peer to peer support and using mentoring as an alternative to managing research. This post was written by Kirsty McNeill and first published on WonkComms. Kirsty McNeill is a strategy consultant to some of the world’s leading campaigning organisations and a former Downing Street adviser. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill. If you are interested in think tank communications then you should follow WonkComms.]

There has been some appetite from the WonkComms community to explore mentoring for up and coming communications staff and a few of us got together last week to discuss what a semi-structured programme might look like. I was really pleased to speak alongside Christine Megson of the Mentoring Programme of the Fabian Women’s Network (you can read more about their impact here) and Genevieve Dawson of Campaign Bootcamp (please direct future campaign stars to apply here).

The session was aimed at comms staff in think tanks but hopefully these lessons can be applied by others hoping to become brilliant mentors, or recruit them. My starting point was clarity of purpose – what problem are we trying to solve? Is it one best solved by coaching, mentoring or sponsorship? For background on why the difference matters, there’s a great introduction in the Harvard Business Review to the idea that all mentoring is not created equal.

The distinctions are disputed and plenty of you will have your own views about the lines I’ve drawn here, but as a starter here’s a quick way of thinking about the difference I introduced yesterday:

Coach Mentor Sponsor
Shares skills. Shares insights. Shares power.
Task oriented – concerned with news ways of doing. Development oriented – concerned with news ways of thinking, seeing and being. Promotion oriented – concerned with redistributing power and status.
Often short term. Often long term. Often medium term.
Need not be from your particular sector. Normally from your sector or a closely related one. Normally from your organisation.
Status differential not intrinsic to the relationship. Experience differential intrinsic to the relationship. Power differential absolutely crucial to the relationship.

If mentoring is definitely what’s needed, here are seven tips for getting it right:

  • Don’t do it for someone you don’t like. Mentoring is a real commitment of time and energy and it will quickly become a chore if the chemistry doesn’t work. Lean In has an excellent chapter on the importance of authentic, warm relationships in mentoring. Doing it for someone you like, however, does not necessarily mean doing it for someone like you. Here’s a good introduction to the idea of solid citizens versus A players that should help guard against the temptation to use mentoring as a reward for ambition rather than potential.
  • Codify what you know and how. What should your mentee listen to, watch, read or attend if they want to think like someone more senior in your sector? Here’s my own attempt to do that for aspiring campaigners.
  • Be self reflective. How willing are you to share your mistakes and disappointments alongside your tips for success? How ready are you to admit the role of luck and / or privilege in your own route to the top?
  • Design out dependence. What ground rules can you set at the outset to ensure people keep progressing even when you’re not there? One of my mentees knows they’re supposed to come to me with options they are considering to help resolve a problem and not just the problem itself, and that they shouldn’t come to me with a question if they haven’t at least googled potential answers first.
  • Be clear on your own motivations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve reviewed a job application or been someone’s reference and never been told the outcome of the application. That isn’t plain rudeness, it is mentees assuming they shouldn’t ‘bother’ me with updates, when it is precisely those which make the relationship worthwhile. That they don’t always understand my motivations for helping in the first place is my fault, not theirs.
  • Don’t undermine their boss. In a world as small as planet think tank, complete confidentiality is a must, as is a healthy dose of objectivity about whatever you are being told about the mentee’s working environment. Don’t conspire with them to evade their line management – it isn’t you who will be giving the reference or writing the appraisal at the end of the day.
  • Don’t be a booster. If people want unconditional enthusiasm they should call their parents or their partner. A mentor isn’t there for that, but instead to give people practical tools and tips to navigate they challenges they face. If your mentee doesn’t leave a conversation with you with to do list, you haven’t done your job.