Mentoring is one of my favourite topics because I have benefited tremendously from both being mentored and from mentoring others in my private and professional life. It stands to reason then why I hold this particular competency so near to my heart: because I believe strongly that tapping into another person’s experience can save a lot of time, money and headache for the mentee. And seeing as this is a project and programme management blog, it makes sense that we would be looking at this from a project management and programme management standpoint!
Before delving into becoming a mentor, one must become a mentor first. In other words, a company doing projects and programmes needs to realise that appointing a senior person as a mentor in their project is beneficial to all team members. A team is only as strong as its’ weakest link, so if a mentor is pushing and aiding in the development of individuals so they assume additional responsibilities and grow in a project, the whole organisation benefits as a whole. In a large or complex programme, it may be desirable for the program manager to set up a mentoring program at a variety of levels.
Before we jump into the sea of mentoring, I wish to clarify the difference between training – facilitating – coaching and mentoring. These terms are many times mixed and not clearly used.
A trainer is someone who provides content to participants about a specific topic or topics. Usually this is an educational process used in order to fine-tune the participants’ knowledge with additional information. The remembered (and hopefully put-to-use) training content becomes knowledge for the trainee. If the trainee applies his knowledge, then it will turn into results and based on the results, it becomes wisdom. How the trainer conveys the content is crucial and has a direct correlation with the ability for the trainee to recall and use this information. If the training job is done poorly, the trainee won’t be able to remember the content, or use it in the project.
A facilitator, on the other hand, does not necessarily provide content per se. A facilitator is helps and guides individuals and groups towards a common goal or to mediate a specific situation. They act as a neutral third party whose main focus is to find the answers to questions, to find resolutions during conflict, and to guide the session so that the crucial points are addressed and an action plan is put into place.
A coach typically does not provide content to the coachee. A coach uses the resources of the coachee and provides options and new ways to use these resources. A coach adds value to the coachee by reframing the coachee’s personal view to specific situations. A coach can mirror a blind spot to the coachee or remove an obstacle in his way of thinking.
I personally use coaching to support my team by asking challenging questions and to stretch their goals. It is a great tool to develop leadership.
I had the honour of gaining a mentor when I started a new job in a company after my apprenticeship. This mentor was a doctor from the ETH Zurich which is one of the highest ranked universities in the technical field globally. The experiential gap between him and myself was huge. Most of the time I had no clue what he was talking about! He operated on a whole other level. However, he pushed me to new levels, even when I was reluctant to do so. He encouraged and convinced me to do design and engineering, first with trial and error, then systematically, then based on example. Finally, after sweat and tears, I had a completed product which was used in the cable railway in the Swiss mountains. In the 90ties, as a youngster, I had a chance to programme a microchip. Being that it was even a new topic in universities, the thought of programming a microchip was also new to me. My mentor simply pushed me to do it. He said: “If it would be easy, everybody from the road could do it. Obviously, you have to go the extra mile and learn it.”
The success of this project boiled down to my beliefs and my supportive environment. My first mentor believed in me, even though he knew I had to learn it the hard way. He believed in the process, was patient and never gave up on me. Understanding the level of his mastery, I would sit with him over the weekend to finish the PCB of the microchip and update the software code; I did whatever I could to learn from him and figure things out, even though I wanted to give up several times. When I was ready to call it quits, he applied the 5S principle to me, cleaned up the work place, structured the situation on the white board and asked me challenging questions to push me forward.
My mentor knew what to do. However, we had to apply it in the harsh environment of the seasons of Switzerland in the mountains where access for maintenance was not easy. Therefore, the product needed to be robust and remote controlled. To have a mentor support me in building such a product was a real treat. If I would have been on my own, I would have given up very early in that project.
A mentor is obviously like a “godfather” or “godmother”, providing you a helping hand when you need it and a kick in the butt when necessary! The mentor uses your own resources, but adds his or her personal experience to the ball game. As an example for railway signalling, I learned much from a 70 year-old signalling engineer about control tables and signalling principles to ensure the safety of a railway. This wise man had more than 50 years of experience. Being pushed by such a person is simply a blessing.
Characteristics of a Mentor:
- A true mentor believes in you, even when you don’t believe in yourself.
- Find a mentor — someone who’s done the thing you want to do, or has something you want (a skill, achieved a goal, etc).
- Make sure your mentor is someone who can actually TEACH YOU how to get, do, or have that thing.
- What’s hard is to keep going when times are tough and the extra mile is longer than you thought; make sure it is someone that is not afraid to call you out and push you when needed.
In many cases, the programme sponsor is considered a mentor. It is in the interest of the programme sponsor that the programme manager and his/her team delivers the programme successfully. Hence, the sponsor becomes the role model for the entire project team. However, in my view, it is not necessary that the programme sponsor is the mentor by definition. The sponsor can help to the team to detect skills improvements, or other gaps and give advice on how to improve. The sponsor may assign a senior team member to a younger project manager as a mentor, for example.
A successful mentoring initiative may be a simple mentoring agreement or a mentoring roadmap. It is a common practise in professional coaching and is common in mentorship as well. A contract simply sets the tone by creating a written and signed commitment to ensure the context is clear and the goals are well defined from the beginning. I highly recommend a contract as a bond can be built upon this agreement between the mentor and the mentee.
To make it work, the mentee must to be willing to accept the mentoring and go the extra mile when needed. It requires full commitment and curiosity to learn something new. The mentoring process can take a few days, as example for a new team-member, or a few months or even years to fill up a senior position.
To achieve a successful relationship with a mentee, the mentor must clearly understand the mentor role, make time for mentoring, be inquisitive and reinforce the mentee’s positive behaviour.
There are many courses out there that supports both mentees and mentors. I highly recommend any course that develops individuals for the betterment of an organisation!