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Get a Mentor: Some thoughts for your consideration

There is nothing new about the idea of mentoring. It is as old as you would like it to be and has existed for as long as people have collaborated and cooperated in the completion of tasks – be that hunting for survival or project management. Mentoring is not the same as coaching – something that in recent times has become a big-ticket business item all of its own. Very often, although not always, coaching is something that is resourced externally whilst mentoring is done internally within a company. Wisdom can be defined as ‘knowledge applied’ and so mentoring is often seen as the transfer of wisdom more than merely the acquisition of knowledge. Wisdom can be found in unexpected places and comes wrapped both formally as well as informally. It can surprise us in that way!

Mentoring hinges on a desire to learn. It cannot be forced on someone nor can it be stipulated and become a matter of policy. Of course some try this approach but this is not where authentic mentoring is to be found. Mentoring happens because someone recognises his or her own need to learn, to grow. They are curious and have questions and recognise in someone else the possibility to have some of those questions answered. They understand the continual need (as Alvin Toffler put it) to ‘learn, unlearn and relearn’.


Mentors need not be older, wiser, smarter or more experienced. We assume that to be the case but it is a wrong assumption to make when it comes to learning from others. I remember it said that our learning is never inhibited by the lack of teachers but rather, by our inability to see the teachers that surround us! I once had the privilege to work with disadvantaged kids – ‘street kids’ as they are often referred to, and they turned out to teach me a lot more than I was perhaps able to teach them. Point is, often those we ‘don’t see’ – or perhaps choose not to see, can be our greatest teachers. My solitary book title hints that this very point: Everything I know about leadership I learnt from the kids.


Pursuing mentorship is a lifelong occupation. The day you stop learning is the day your world begins to shrink. Mentors challenge perspective and precipitate deeper insight. Answers they might provide should invite deeper curiosity and so the curiosity – answer – curiosity ‘tumble turn’ that at the heart of all learning is cultivated.


Mentorship need not be formalized. Good mentorship often is, but it need not be, the case. Sometimes your mentor need not even know they are in fact your mentor. Again it is about your own learning attitude and where and how you look in order to learn.


Even leaders need mentors. One of the pitfalls of leadership is when leaders themselves stop learning. Often our construct of leadership means that leaders feel as though they need to always have the answers, always know what to do and how it should be done. ‘After all, isn’t this what leadership is all about?’ is the prevailing logic. Smart leaders today recognise that they need to be learners. Learning isn’t something that comes to an end when you finally get that ‘corner office’. Many would say that is when real learning starts! Smart leaders seek out mentors who can help them reflect, ask tough questions and provide a refuge when needed.


But being in a position of leadership doesn’t make you a mentor. You don’t need positional power or authority to be a mentor. You don’t need to even have succeeded or have acquired status or wealth to be a mentor. Such thinking is an aberration of what mentorship is all about. It is something that goes deeper, goes beyond the artificial accolades and pedestals we like to build. Mentorship can happen in the quiet; in the shadows, away from the applause and spotlight. A mentor of mine once said, in response to my asking him what was the best advice he could pass onto to me: “Never worry about the size of the stage in life that you feel called to perform on, worry more that you have something worthwhile to say”. His name was Dallas Willard and his words have accompanied me on my journey ever since that day.


Mentors often listen more than they speak. Wise mentoring often involves deep listening. It is not about wrapping ready-made answers to a set of problems posed. Wise mentors understand what their role is in the mentees journey and they somehow know when to speak and when to keep silent; when to pitch-in and help and when to stand back; when to be impatient and challenging and when to be patient and empathetic. They are willing (and courageous) to say what we sometimes don’t want to hear and they do understand when our response isn’t what was expected or even appropriate. When you find such people, hold them close!


Who is your mentor? Who are you mentoring? They are different sides of the same coin. Of course we can have more than one mentor in the same way we can mentor more than one person. But there needs to be an intentionality about mentoring. Intentionality isn’t the same as formality; don’t confuse the two. Good parenting is intentional; good parenting knows how to both seize the moment and how to create the moment. It is the same with mentorship.


So, once again, who is your mentor?

This article was first published in Volume 1 Issue 08 of The SA Leader magazine.

Last modified on Monday, 30 September 2013 10:37
Keith Coats

Keith Coats

Keith Coats is a founding partner of TomorrowToday, where his skills lie in his ability to find appropriate frameworks, insights and processes for Individuals and companies in the area of strategic leadership. Keith works with leadership teams and senior leaders to explore and evaluate their concept of the New World of Work, and in doing so is able to draw on his extensive international experience in contextualizing the potential or anticipated global changes for the business world today.


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Get a Mentor: Some thoughts for your consideration


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