Marvellous mentoring

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It’s International Mentoring day on 17 January. Jane considers the importance of this type of support.

Isn’t it great to have a mentor?

They can metaphorically hold your hand as you navigate your career.  And they can help you avoid problems. Ideally they can also support you practically with more senior contacts.

All that can be true but in the week when International Mentoring is celebrated, I wanted to reflect on how much more it can mean – and how much further mentoring could take you.

If your life experience or background makes you feel different from your colleagues, the temptation to mask in order to fit in can be strong. And sometimes, especially if you feel discriminated against, isolation is a real risk. A strong mentoring relationship can help you to feel you are not alone, especially when the mentor is prepared to be open about their own challenges.

I have had several outstanding mentors who supported me at times of extreme discrimination and stress. Just asking a simple question, such as ‘How are you?’ in a genuine way – made all the difference at particularly traumatic moments. I occasionally wonder what my life would be like now if I had not had that support; I suspect it would be bleaker.

How important is it that a mentor shares some of your lived experience or perspective?  Conversations with 3  women leaders who were my mentors at different points helped me broaden my perspective. While none of my mentors have been deaf, several inspired me to feel ‘Yes, I can get through this; I deserve to thrive.’ It felt helpful that they were women who had already broken the glass ceiling in the large organisations they led.

I have been a mentor to another deaf person in my workplace – one of a tiny number of us. With the permission of the person I mentored, I documented the work we did together in a case study.* The case study includes this definition of mentoring which we drew up together: 

  • regular access to a volunteer with useful professional and personal experience to share;
  • contact with someone who has your interests at heart and who can draw on their experience to suggest new approaches to problems;
  • a relationship based on mutual respect and confidentiality.

That final point about mutual respect is crucial. While a mentor is partly there to shine a light upwards for you, they will also learn a huge amount from you. Equality in the conversations you have is important. Taking this further, a relatively new development in the world of mentoring is ‘Reciprocal mentoring’. Result has now run 3 training programmes for large organisations which wanted to set up reciprocal mentoring programmes, particularly focused on bringing together people from marginalised backgrounds with senior figures (noting that some participants brought experience of both). One of the main reasons were were asked to do this work was that we bring our own lived experience of being marginalised to the training.

Preparing for an equal conversation with someone whose seniority means you may have rarely had contact with them before, involves understanding your own unconscious biases and learning to listen at a deep level. The rewards of both processes can be significant, even before you start to benefit from the mentoring discussions.

If you are considering mentoring, or looking for a mentor, I hope this blog may tempt you to try. And if you think your organisation could benefit from reciprocal mentoring, why not contact us to arrange a chat?

* Clutterbuck, D, Poulsen, K.M and Kochan, F, 2012. Developing Successful Diversity Mentoring Programmes: An International Casebook. Maidenhead: Open University Press McGraw-Hill Education.

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