Can anyone be a mentor? Six things a good mentor needs

mentor1991 was the year DI Jane Tennison first hit our screens in Prime Suspect, fighting sexism and crime in equal measure. It was also the year I joined the West Yorkshire Police on the leadership fasttrack and got my first formal mentor, a previous graduate entrant.

My first – and last – mentoring meeting was just long enough for him to tell me that as he didn’t think women had a place either on the force or the fast-track he wouldn’t be wasting his time on me.

The force’s rationale was sound – this was exactly the kind of situation that cries out for mentoring; a significant and challenging step into the unknown. But it was also why the effect on my confidence and motivation was particularly devastating. A previous graduate entrant may have the ‘context-specific expertise and knowledge’ that the European Mentoring and Coaching Council* identifies as being necessary for effective mentoring, but it takes more than that to be a mentor.

My experience in the police came to mind recently when I read an Institute of Leadership and Management report into mentoring, one finding of which was that while 76% of managers saw themselves as acting as mentors, only 24% of the millennials they ‘mentored’ agreed.**

In addition, according to the TUC, while mentoring is expected to play a large part in maximising the potential of apprentices, ‘despite the increasing recognition of the value of mentoring there is a lack of clarity over what is meant by mentoring and how it differs from the support typically offered by the apprentice’s line manager, training provider and/or assessor.’*** This suggests a perception, skills and knowledge gap which it might be timely to address, given that the government is looking to have 3m people in apprenticeships by 2020.

For an organisation to get the most out of mentoring, a number of things need to be in place. Both mentors and mentees need to understand the process, the roles and the way that people face challenges, progress and learn. Some level of formality in choice, training and monitoring the mentoring programme also gives the organisation oversight of the process and its level of success.

As well as this, mentors need to:

1.   Have a ‘growth’ rather than a ‘fixed’ mindset – Dweck’s work on mindset and feedback is a valuable resource

2.   Understand diversity, in particular the prejudices that can influence how we open up or limit opportunities for people depending on gender, race, age etc

3.   Have the skills – listening, feedback, coaching – that will best enable the mentee to integrate learning and develop their thinking. David Clutterbuck states that the ability to build rapport is crucial to mentoring in a way that it is not in coaching – the relationship is key

4.   Be exemplary in their behaviours. Mentors act as role models not just in behaviours but in attitudes – to customers, colleagues, management and suppliers. They provide a far more powerful induction into the culture of an organisation than any formal induction process

5.   Understand how different generations in the workplace view their career, learning, team work and feedback. There are significant differences between Boomers, Traditionalists, Generation Xers, Yers and Millennials. Being aware can help all parties get more from the relationship

6.   Most importantly, get a kick out of seeing people develop and grow

The origins of mentoring are said to lie in Homer’s story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca. Odysseus asks his faithful, wise and trusted friend Mentor to take care of his son, Telemachus, while Odysseus is away – watching over him and guiding him through his transition from boy to man. On that basis of the origins of mentoring my real mentoring came from my tutor constable who I shadowed during my first weeks on the job. He loved policing and was an exemplary officer, but most importantly he liked seeing people develop and grow in the job. His values, enthusiasm and the way he did the job shaped both my approach to policing and to mentoring.

Mentoring is an important organisational learning process and knowledge management tool, and ideas such as reverse mentoring – a younger person mentoring an older one in areas like technology and social trends – increases its scope and value. At a time when businesses are rightly investing so much in apprenticeships, it’s never been more important to get mentoring right.

Do the mentors in your organisation have what it takes? Are you sure they are communicating and role modelling what’s important in your organisation? If not, contact Beehive/b.SAFE at We provide both ILM accredited and bespoke mentoring and coaching training, and have provided mentor and mentee training most recently for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s SME Mentoring Scheme, The National Skills Academy Nuclear, and The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s Research Fellows’ Mentoring programme.

*European Mentoring and Coaching Council International Mentoring Survey 2015

** ‘Workforce 2020 – Managing Millennials’, Institute of Leadership and Management

*** ‘The Role of Mentoring in Supporting Apprenticeships’, Andy Hirst, Christina Short and Sini Rinne of Cambridge Policy Consultants, Research paper 20, April 2014

Author: bsafebuzz

Sara Lodge is co-director, along with Mark Sykes, of Beehive Coaching and Leadership Development Ltd and b.SAFE Safety Culture, an organisational development consultancy specialising in behaviour change and safety culture.

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