Everything you need to know about mentoring in the Covid age

Sharing experiences with a good mentor can bring a new perspective, home truths and provocative ideas. Here, we find out how leading CMOs and enterpreneurs are embracing and driving a new approach to mentoring

Wisr's friendly morning Zoom has brought insights for mentors
Wisr's friendly morning Zoom has brought insights for mentors

When and how 

Mentoring may be needed now more than ever, but how do individuals tell if they need it and what are the qualities of good mentoring? Stephenson believes you know you need a mentor if you feel like you're stuck in the ‘waiting place’. 

"If you know you've got potential that's not being leveraged, if you're feeling like you need inspiration or fuelling or someone to tell you the truth, or if you feel as if you don’t know what to do, you need a mentor,” she says. 

The consensus is mentoring ideally happens once a month or as Lollback suggests, sessions could be bi-monthly with adhoc needs dealt with inbetween on phone calls. But he warns calls only work if you’re already in a mentoring relationship and engaged with each other. 

Many sessions are unstructured catch-ups about progress and obstacles in a job, in career goals and life generally. But both Bell and Lollback prefer structure based on a mentee’s need for help in a particular areas on a brief agenda. Finch too appreciates questions raised by mentees at The Marketing Academy where she also mentors. 

“They all come well prepared with great questions. That’s continued during the pandemic and I still get a lot out of the virtual chats,” Finch says. 

Read more: The growing importance of Reverse-mentoring 

Bell says sessions need structure, rather than simply asking how is everything going and being told it's 'amazing'.  

“I say let’s talk about the bad stuff so we can work through it. Before each session the mentee needs to work out three challenges they’re facing," he says. "We work through each challenge in 15 to 20 minutes and by the end of the session, the mentee has some actionable items to work through. Hopefully, by the next session, they’ve resolved those challenges and we can work through some new ones.” 

For many team leaders, mentoring is a combination of learning about facets of work as well as personal goals beyond work. However, as a coach to mentors, Stephenson reports some mentors are now having conversations about things they don’t feel qualified to be talking about, including mental health. 

Bell sees training is one side of the mentoring coin. Bell’s companies provide a lot of upskilling opportunities and buddying with colleagues expert in a skillset for up to six months, wherever they are in the world.

“Training can be very transactional - here's information about how, now go do it. Whereas mentoring is an ongoing relationship where you train and teach,” he says. “So it depends if it's training, where it's transactional and it's once off, or mentoring. Yes, mentoring is training, but it's an ongoing relationship that can last for years, goes deeper and shares a lot of personal information.”

Yet for Lollback, mentoring is not the same thing as training staff,

“It’s holistic because people struggle with different demands on their time, the balance between work and personal is all on the table but it is not personal counselling,” he says. “It’s not training – they can get that from their line manager.”

While in-person meetings are the best way to encourage the frank relationship needed between mentor and mentee, lockdowns have scuttled many meetings and our newfound video comfort zone has the upside of dispensing with travel. The Lisnic platform allows individuals to choose mentors from around the world. 

“Mentoring is not just a meeting – it's an honest exchange. There’s nothing better than face-to-face because you get a much more authentic experience," Lollback says. "[Once a relationship has begun in person] I think phone calls are better than video because of video’s distractions in the background. Phone is less intimidating and it’s easier to concentrate without distractions.” 

Honesty is the best quality 

The qualities of good mentoring are commitment, an ability to listen and share and honesty. Often, distance can bring fresher perspective or valuable impartiality. Mentoring also needs to be done by people who genuinely want to do it. Often, it’s people who want to share their experience to give back to others and who gain satisfaction from sharing their experience in a way that will help the mentee.

“There’s a real value exchange for both parties. I always come out of a mentoring meeting feeling I got just as much out of that as the person being mentored,” says Lollback. 

In the past, mentors would be senior people who possibly thought it's their job to share what they know and tell you the best way to do things, he admits. 

“In fact it should be the opposite: The mentor’s job is to listen and ask questions and get to the mentee’s issues and share relevant experiences,” Lollback continues. “The mentor must be fully present and listen intently. A lot of the time, what the mentee is saying is not the real issue. So mentors must keep asking questions to peel back the onion, get to the real issue and have a really powerful conversation.” 

Le Brocq believes the more holistic and less formal elements of mentoring enable people to open up more honestly and talk more authentically. 

Wisr CMO, James GoodwinCredit: Wisr
Wisr CMO, James Goodwin

Lollback and Goodwin add ‘vulnerability’ to the list of good qualities in a mentoring session. 

“Both mentor and mentee need to be prepared to drop their guard and be honest. They’re not there to impress anyone,” says Lollback. “A mentor is a trusted advisor and is not there to represent the business the company. They can't have an agenda, just give advice truly in the best interest of the person.” 

Goodwin believes Wisr’s corporate culture encourages learning from “intelligent mistakes” and honesty. 

“We create a safe space for people to make intelligent failures. As a high-growth company we want to empower people to make decisions and we don’t want them to feel bad about that. We’d rather ask what we can learn from that. I like to create psychological safety – vulnerability is a part of mentoring because people have to feel they can be very honest. It’s more of a mindset I can mentor people towards.” 

Lollback and Stephenson suggest a little distance between mentor and mentee can go a long way to a more honest exchange. Lollback believes c-suite leaders make better mentors than the manager to whom you report. 

“CFOs or leaders of HR or logisics are better placed to mentor people in marketing teams – because they need to be a trusted advisor and not the mentee’s their boss. Both parties need to be vulnerable and tell the truth, and the mentee has to believe that what they’re talking about doesn’t get back to their boss,” he says. “A CMO can still coach their team and give advice when asked, but mentoring should not come from your manager.” 

Being mentored by someone outside your organisation brings even more distance. Stephenson believes it tends to be more effective as it feels more confidential. An outsider is also more likely to bring an even fresher perspective than a mentor from inside an organisation who’s imbued with the same culture or modus operandi.

Stephenson says provocative is another quality people now want in their mentors, and she says courageous firms are using external mentors to get that quality.  

“What people want now more than ever is a mentor who will disrupt their thinking, challenge them really hard and give them different things to think about, who can help them build their network outside of where they are right now,” she says. 

Someone walking away from a mentoring session, should feel “very nurtured, inspired and energised … like someone’s got you covered," she adds. 

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