Nicky Little from Cirrus talks mentoring

Modern mentoring

Our complex world calls for a more collaborative and flexible approach to mentoring, says Nicky Little from Cirrus.

Mentoring has been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who acted as a trusted adviser to Odysseus’ son. This set the tone for mentoring as a relationship between a trusted elder and a younger person in need of guidance.

Today’s world is of course very different from the one the Ancient Greeks inhabited. If mentoring is to be successful in our modern world, it needs to be different too.

Most of us operate in very unpredictable environments. Few of us can envisage what our jobs or our organisations are really going to look like in a few years’ time. Whereas in the past it was common to set up one key, long-term mentoring relationship, today many people benefit from multiple mentoring relationships, often with more than one mentor at the same time. As organisations become more fluid, mentoring needs to adapt.

We are also operating in less hierarchical organisational environments where multiple generations of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, and Generations X,Y and Z work side-by-side.

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is a process where two or more people share knowledge and experience. It enables people to grow.

Mentoring can complement your learning and development programmes. It can help to develop self-awareness and confidence, which supports the skills mentees may be gaining elsewhere.

Peer mentoring, where colleagues with similar levels of experience mentor each other, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Peer mentors can collaborate and learn from each other, reinforcing their own learning in the process.

Group mentoring has also gained popularity. This enables collections of individuals to share experiences. It can take place virtually and is particularly useful for bringing together geographically dispersed groups in global organisations. Digital mentoring platforms can provide powerful collaboration tools, enabling individuals to post about a dilemma and then to benefit from a range of suggested solutions.

Reverse mentoring turns the traditional view of the wiser, older mentor and younger, less experienced mentee on its head. It is gaining popularity as the pace of social and technological change increases. Just as my own kids know their way around my smartphone better than I do, Generation Y and Z’s digital natives can help their older colleagues to navigate technology at work with ease. They can also provide illuminating insights into the changing nature of wider areas such as media, communication and relationships.

Building meaningful connections

In the midst of the digital explosion, human relationships are more important than ever. Valuable connections can be made online as well as face-to-face. In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Anthony Tjan highlights the importance of authentic, relationship-based mentoring and warned against making it a ‘tick-box’ exercise.  He quotes University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee research into the importance of quality mentoring relationships, which demonstrates that unless mentees have a basic relationship with their mentors, there is no difference between individuals who are mentored and those who are not. He suggests that we focus more on matching mentors and mentees who have rapport, less on matching a leader with a more junior employee. Researching his upcoming book Good People, Tjan found that many of today’s most admired leaders focus much more on creating other leaders than they do on creating followers.

In my experience, a really effective mentor looks on the mentee as a ‘whole’ person. When I ask people to describe their most positive mentoring experiences, they often describe a powerful relationship which inspired them. Even when the connection was rooted in the workplace, its impact spread beyond that. Good mentors encourage and challenge mentees to draw on passions as well as strengths. This requires a high degree of openness and trust.

When an organisation sets up a mentoring programme, it’s important to be aware that some mentees may realise as a result that your organisation isn’t the right place for them after all. Others will benefit from mentoring support to develop their careers with you in line with their passions.

Multiple mentors

The type of meaningful connections described above are usually formed as part of a committed one-to-one mentoring relationship. However, in a complex working environment, one mentor may not be enough, and not every mentoring relationship requires the same level of commitment.

Many organisations today encourage short-term mentoring relationships when they are most needed.  The need does not have to arise from a major challenge: it may be that the mentee simply needs help, advice or support with a small step. So, for example, you could offer one-hour mentoring sessions on topics such as being an interviewer or leading a webinar with mentors who are very experienced in these areas. This is sometimes called ‘spot mentoring’ and doesn’t require the same degree of rapport building and goal-setting that more structured relationships benefit from.

Digital mentoring platforms can offer tremendous opportunities for spot mentoring, providing mentees with a range of mentor profiles to choose from, as well as the opportunity to book sessions online. As previously mentioned, these platforms can also support effective group mentoring.

So in conclusion, while the origins of mentoring are deeply rooted in the past, it remains a powerful tool for helping individuals to navigate the modern, unpredictable world of work. And while traditional mentoring relationships still have their place, many forward-thinking organisations now embrace multiple forms of mentoring to support today’s more diverse ways of working.

Read more comment on mentoring from Nicky in People Management.

To find out more about mentoring solutions from Cirrus, please get in touch. We’d love to talk to you.



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