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Thursday, 23 September, 2021
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Stealth Mentoring can really work

Stealth Mentoring can really work. I always ask the people that I’m working with if they have a mentor and how many people they mentor. Many stare blankly and, when pressed, say that the last time they volunteered for a mentoring scheme, they had to fill in lots of forms and go through a lengthy matching process before ending up with someone who they had nothing in common with. Others say they have never been invited. A few tell me about their successes.

How can we help spread the word that mentoring doesn’t have to be solely run through schemes? Let’s talk about the stealth method.

But first, why bother? One of the biggest things to hold back productivity is confidence, a lack of belief in self. Add to that the fear of failure, and you have a potent mix that leads to mediocrity and people following the established route. The chance to bounce an idea off a mentor, usually someone with more experience in life than you (but certainly doesn’t have to have coaching or mentoring qualifications), is often all that is needed to realise that it is worth giving the idea a try; it isn’t as mad as your inner worrying self is trying to say.

I’ve seen people take a part formed idea to their mentor, develop it by simply talking about it out loud, and for that idea to turn into a productive project.

In the plural. Many times.

The confidence born from a simple conversation with a mentor has also led to people applying for a job that they weren’t sure they were ready for (and getting it), taking a course they hadn’t thought of, and excelling in their careers in a way that someone working completely alone can’t easily achieve.

I mentor over fifty people at the moment. They do not appear every three weeks for a set one-hour conversation, having completed homework that I set them. Instead, they disappear for months on end and then pop up when something is happening in their lives that they want to discuss. To put it into context, I held nine meetings (5 by Zoom, 2 with coffee and 2 in a beer garden) last month and thirteen the month before.

All were easy to fit into my schedule of writing books and paid consultancy.

For me mentoring is about the chance to give something back to the next generation and, at the same time, learn from them about all the changes going on in the world from their perspective. It’s about meeting up on an irregular basis when a crunch decision is needed and exploring all the avenues available.

Confidentiality is a given: it doesn’t need a formal contract or membership of a scheme.

Stealth Mentoring can really work.

My most enjoyable mentoring sessions are often with people I have previously line-managed. I know them well, they know me well, and yet we are no longer in a direct working relationship, so they and I can say what is needed. I also enjoy being referred by someone to provide help or support to a new HR Director (which was my life for many years). More often than not, my job is to listen and then confirm that the course of action they are considering is the right one, a confidence booster. Sometimes it can be to say ‘and have you thought of any other alternatives’ when it’s clear they are heading in the wrong direction!

Many mentoring meetings focus on the pros and cons of applying for a new job. Sometimes it’s about how to deal with a difficult relationship with a line manager. Sometimes, it’s about being a line manager for the first time. Occasionally, it’s about dissecting a failed application or interview and learning from it, or it’s about another issue like illness or broken relationships (but those are rare in comparison to the work-related nature of my mentoring).

If you don’t have a mentor, then go get a few! The best place to start is usually a previous tutor or line manager or someone you respect in a more senior role than yours. Don’t ask them to be your mentor; allow it to happen over time. Instead, ask them if they are free for a coffee or lunch (at your expense), as you would like to ask for their advice. Things will progress from there, or you’ll need to try someone else, but nine times out of ten, you’ll be meeting up with them again, and things will flourish. No need to call it mentoring; this is mentoring by stealth, don’t forget! Just remember to send a note of thanks after the encounter that includes something you’re now doing differently.

And there are no rules about how many mentors you can have.

If you don’t mentor people, then start! If you see someone you used to work with (or line-managed) struggling with a job or an issue, or working in another department and showing promise, then offer to have a chat over coffee. Listen to what they are doing and saying, and as the conversation develops, you will naturally fall into a mentoring relationship. The first person I mentored was a new graduate who looked utterly lost in the world of work. I still catch up with him these days, although he’s now a COO.

Once you’ve tried it yourself and found how powerful it can be, spread the word. The more the merrier. It’s a positive for mental wellbeing, confidence and productivity even if it doesn’t conform to the structured approach that the conformists would try to sell you!

Ted Smith
Ted Smith is a mentor to many (not a coach), an author (of both non-fiction and fiction), and sometimes OD/HR Consultant, when he isn't attending a festival, watching sport or discovering things in his campervan (it has a lot of cupboards). Ted moved from a science degree into the HR world via a spell as Student Union President. He worked at Glaxo, Wellcome Trust, the MRC and a string of biotechs. He has a reputation for creativity and problem solving and is not afraid to challenge the status quo (or a senior exec). The only management txt book that he has ever managed to read from cover to cover was written by Ricardo Semler, second only to Nelson Mandela in the God-like status charts.

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