MENTORING is on its way to becoming a buzzword, but not many people know the genesis of the term. Without that knowledge, the nuance is lost. The term comes from Greek mythology. Telemachus, a young prince, needed protection as his father Ulysses was going away. Goddess Athena took the form of a being – half-woman and half-man – bearing the name Mentor. There is deep symbolism in this myth.
A mentor is a very special person. The mentor is needed not to do parenting per se, but to give all the nurturing attention necessary without the attachment that a biological relationship creates. A mentor is ‘half-man’, so that the elements of power, protection and discipline are showered; the half-woman aspect is designed for emotive, unconditional care.
The starting point is to appreciate the deep implications of the mentor’s role. It starts with deep knowledge about the recipient, which is not simply need-based and functional. Like the mythical Mentor’s understanding of the prince, knowledge has to go into all aspects and not be based on a narrow intersect between the learning agenda and learner information. This is critical to create the time, space and relationship in which true mentoring can take place.
Mentoring requires white-space time because it involves the transference of ideas and the imprinting of those ideas in the recipient’s mind. The process of imprinting is interesting. Most workplace-based, structured, agenda-driven interactions have limited imprinting capability on a recipient’s mind, whereas non-workplace, non-structured and non-agenda-based interactions leave a lasting imprint.
A child begins to learn in her time and space, while sucking from a bottle of milk or lying on her stomach. Learning happens in what I call ‘my time and space’ as against the confines of a training room. The mind is most receptive during white-space situations because attention, an organic process, precedes learning. Mentoring requires attentive learning, dependent on creating white-space interaction.
Given the white space, the next step is to listen. However information-rich the mentor may be, the first step is to listen. The second step is to listen, and the third step is to listen. When a mentor is asked a question, the position of assumed superiority makes him or her want to give a quick, intelligent solution. The trick is not so much to be ready with the answer, as it is to be ready with questions. Ask the questions that make the recipient discover the answer. This method is known as the Socratic method or elenchus, whereby a student made a statement to answer his own question, and Socrates would keep throwing questions back until the student got to the answer.
In the corporate context, I find that many managers confuse mentoring with managing. Effective mentoring is inherently an altruistic activity. It requires respect for the recipient’s ability to grow. Once an idea receives transference, we have no knowledge how it will grow, take on a life of its own. And what it will shape into. As the idea grows, so does its receiver.
Mentoring is not about popularity. The mentor’s crucial role is to question, to test, and to open the recipient’s mind to alternate possibilities. The mentor creates connections to other sources of information. It cannot be a relationship restricted to the tight confines of an organisation, or be nested in a narrow definition of time. Many effective mentoring relationships survive even after the actors move on.
Process compliance often drives companies to pick up the concept of mentoring without understanding its essence. The most critical aspect of the Greek myth – recognising that the idea is to groom a prince – is probably lost on many of us. A young prince was always considered to be a very valuable person, an individual who would define not just a future for himself but the destiny of the kingdom itself. Mentoring will succeed when that value is placed on each person who is to be nurtured.