Mentoring – Help Me To Help Myself

In Homer’s Odyssey, when Ulysses left to fight the Trojan War, he assigned a tutor named Mentor to look after his son. Mentor was to bring his son to adulthood and to share his wisdom and learning with the boy and to imbue in the young man all that was great and noble.

Today, I am sure that this original concept is not remembered; today we have perhaps adopted a more practical approach in mentoring relationships. Now how we function as a mentor as well as how mentorees work with their mentors depends on the nature of the relationship that is developed.

The mentoring relationship is formed in several different circumstances. Firstly, in a corporate organization, the Human Resources department sets up a mentoring program to groom leaders of the future for its own corporate objectives. In this case, an employee will be assigned a mentor who is likely to be a senior leader, probably in another department whose role is to help his mentoree grow in the organization, to gather enough work experience and have both breadth and depth. He helps steer him to an understanding of the corporate culture of the place, navigate the politics in the organization, and be a wise counsel and friend who says it as it is. The mentoree builds a trust relationship knowing that the mentor has the mentoree’s own interest at heart. He is someone with whom he can confide in without fear or favor.

Long term perspectives

The mentor plays a larger, more strategic long term role to help the mentoree identify his personal and long range goals, and understand his strength and weakness, knowing that this relationship and discussions will not adversely impact his immediate performance assessments done by his immediate boss who is likely to be more work and deliverables focused.

The second relationship is where someone decides that he would like to share his experience and help another person who is willing to be helped. Walter Wright of the Max DePree Leadership Center says that in such an instance, this gift of a mentoring relationship is “an intentional, exclusive, intensive, voluntary relationship between two persons. it is a relationship i.e., teaching/learning connection between two persons – in which both work to nurture the relationship – to contribute to the connection.” I will discuss this relationship and look at the roles and commitments of each.

The third form of such a relationship is somewhat different but still a deliberate attempt to learn from the experience and tap on the wisdom of others. These can be in the form of accountability groups and probably more often exists outside of the corporate world. I can think of such groups within community and church related organizations where people come together to support each other to grow in their chosen roles and goals and who are given permission to speak into each other’s lives. There could be some informal accountability relationships. It could form between not just groups but also friends who value the experience that a person has and taps on this. Such relationships are more often loose and flexible and often this is a case of mentoring relationships between equals.

In the formal mentoring relationship outside the corporate environment, there are several challenges that will affect the mentoring relationship. Much will depend on the rationale for the relationship in the first place. Who sought who? How was the relationship established?

Did a Ulysses identify and assign Mentor to me, his son? I had no choice and am I in this relationship because I was assigned Mentor but let us see what he can do for me? We need to step aside first and ask ourselves some questions before we embark on or continue in such relationships.

What do I have to do to make it work? What is in it for me? Do I have to make it work? Do I see any value in it? For those of us who can relate to this form of a mentoring relationship, it is best to reflect on these questions and think it through. It is pointless to spend time on such a relationship if it does not add value to you. Besides, it is not honoring of the mentor who probably is a volunteer and has a choice of taking on this relationship or otherwise spend his time in other activities.

Other questions that need to be asked of ourselves include the following: Did I seek out a mentor for myself because I have established that I need a nurturing, learning relationship with someone I know and whom I see having many qualities (or successes) that I admire and would like to emulate? What do I want to get out of this relationship and what am I prepared to put in? These last two are significant, powerful questions that need to be asked and answered for successful mentoring relationships to work.

I believe that mentoring is a powerful way in which we can nurture future leaders in the communities that we are involved in. It is a way in which the wealth of experience of our leaders can be captured and shared through a personal and dynamic relationship between two people or between groups of people who have similar goals and beliefs. It has been said that experience is a powerful teacher but how often is it used in formal learning relationships that can enhance and add value to the learning of those whom we are in contact with?

The role of a mentor is more than just sharing experiences for the learning or guidance of those being mentored. Besides listening to and helping the mentoree in his growth, mentors can play a significant role in helping those they are mentoring to look beyond the immediate challenges that each of us have, whether in the workplace, or in the family amidst challenges about career, time, and resource commitments. Mentors can play significant roles by asking powerful questions that take the mentoree beyond the self part to seeing the whole person, to thinking about the roles we each have in the communities we are in, in our country, and in the spiritual dimension. To help mentorees think about their life goals and the “being.” We are made body, soul, and spirit and we often need to ensure that even as our bodies are well fed, our soul and our spirit are in the right alignment and we have identified and are working towards our purpose in life.

Mentors who are given the privilege to guide our younger generation of leaders can also help them to think and stretch beyond themselves. But mentors are human also and fallible. What is the extent of our commitment as mentors? It is said that mentoring is a sharing of oneself. Even as we bring our experiences and own learning into the relationship, it is really the sharing of our own hearts and minds that will touch and resonate with our mentorees because we then seem to be more real. None of us is perfect and we all have our failings. We need to be authentic. As mentors we do not hold ourselves out as models of success. We are where we are today only by God’s grace in our lives as we walk in commitment to His perfect will.

And our values and attitudes must also be of serving, of learning, and listening. We can serve by adopting an art of listening…to the unsaid question, the thought not expressed. Ask questions and not just give answers. We have heard that the power is in the question as it encourages others to think and dig deep within themselves for the answers that matter and which will resonate with them because it is their thought, their own ideas. We are there only to provide that guidance…not their answers.

Wright, Jr., Walter. Gift of Mentors. Max De Pree Center for Leadership
De Pree, Max, and Walter Wright, Jr. Mentoring: Two voices. Max De Pree Center for Leadership

This article “Mentoring – Help Me To Help Myself” by Shirley Chen was first published in the May-June 2011 issue of Eagles VantagePoint magazine ( Used with permission.