When we talk about the benefits of mentoring, a subject close to my heart, the focus is almost always on the mentee. Rightly, we acknowledge how the person being mentored can benefit from an experienced sounding board: a source of advice and positive reinforcement, as well as a role model for what it takes to succeed in a given company or industry.
This is the familiar, well-understood half of the story: the trickle-down effect of experience from people well advanced in their careers to those starting out, as well as a feedback loop from one level of the organisation to another. But I think we do mentoring a disservice if we see it solely as an information exchange from senior to junior, and a medium for coaching.
There is also a huge benefit to being a mentor, and not just because it is rewarding to help people prosper in their working lives and to feel the satisfaction of any successful coaching relationship. Mentoring may be an important obligation of seniority, a way of paying forward the help you once received and of supporting the long-term health of the organisation. But it is also an experience that rewards the individual, in ways that often go unrecognised.
This was brought home to me by a recent conversation with a colleague, who was speaking at a conference and had been asked what she attributed her success to. ‘It took me aback,’ she said. ‘I had to really think how I did it.’
That is quite typical of talented people, who often seem to shrug their shoulders when pressed to articulate how they can do something with apparent ease that others may find difficult. They are good at their job because it comes naturally, and they don’t always understand their own ability, or the skills that underpin it.
One of the advantages of making these people mentors is that they will be confronted with the question of how to do what they do. They will have to stop and think: to break down their job, the way they approach it, and the factors on which success depends. They are not just having to do and instruct, but to explain and to coach. These are different muscles, and sometimes unfamiliar ones.
Developing them is something we can all benefit from, however experienced we may be. Being asked about what you do, how you do it and why you made certain decisions is a useful discipline that mentoring brings to the fore—one that one might otherwise tend to avoid. It forces the mentor to really scrutinise the process of how, for instance, they contribute to a meeting, manage a client or try to get a new project off the ground. It demands that they be honest about why they chose a particular career path or spurned another. To be a good mentor you have to get out of your comfort zone and provide meaningful answers to what may be challenging questions.
It’s a process I have always found both refreshing and rewarding. My work mentoring people at all levels within F5 hasn’t just given me a better appreciation of colleagues’ experiences in different parts of the company, and the challenges of starting a career in a very different working world from the one I first encountered. It’s also made me think harder and in different ways about my own work. At this stage in my career, I am probably learning more from my mentoring role than any other part of my job. I know that a mentoring session will only be useful if I listen hard to what I am being told and asked about and give responses that meet the mark—not simply generic reflections or old anecdotes pulled down from a dusty shelf.
As a mentor you are not simply acting as the often-cited sounding board. You are also holding up a mirror to yourself, your career and your experiences. On top of all the good reasons to embrace mentoring, it is this introspective element that makes the experience as fascinating as it is worthwhile.
At F5, we’ve created a comprehensive mentoring programme to drive continuous engagement and career development. It helps both mentor and mentee grow by being flexible, adaptable and empathetic at every turn. And, most importantly, it hasn’t been designed as a box tick exercise imposed from the top – it is all about connecting with, and learning from, the right people at the right time.
Anyone who hasn’t been a mentor should seriously consider it. Even as the nominal teacher, you will be surprised by how much you learn.
OPINION PIECE: Ian Jones, Global SVP – Professional & Education Services, F5