Mentoring matters more now

Leadership & Strategy Relationships & Decision Making
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It’s time to put focus back on mentoring

While mentoring has taken a backseat for many leaders this past year, now is a good moment to step back into this vital role. Nine months into the pandemic, employees continue to struggle with feelings of disconnection and anxiety. Not to mention the huge professional challenges created by remote work and market disruptions. In such a scenario, as a mentor, you can function as an anchor – a calming presence that helps mentees stay connected, cope with uncertainty and find new ways to thrive.

Here are four compelling reasons to recommit to mentoring right now:

1. As a unique source of support.

In an HBR article, the authors explain why it’s extra-important to reach out to mentees during periods of upheaval: 

Now more than ever they need emotional support. But they can’t always turn to their managers, who may be consumed with solving problems and overwhelmed with keeping their organizations running. Workers may also fear that managers, who hold the key to future advancement, may view a request for help as a weakness. Thus you as a mentor can play a critical role, providing them with a stabilizing force, someone who can help talk them down when they’re triggered, scared, burned out, or confused—all off the record.

2. For engagement and retention.

People will long remember the way in which their company treated them during COVID-19 – for better or worse. Refocusing on mentorship at this time tells employees that their organisation cares about them – in terms of talent development, as well as mental wellbeing. Involved mentoring can keep team members engaged and committed even in the midst of extreme uncertainty, as well as boost retention in the long run. 

3. As an antidote to isolation.

Lonely employees are less engaged, perform more poorly, and are likelier to quit. Even in a normal year, loneliness can cost businesses millions of dollars. Can you imagine what the bottom-line impact of this pandemic will be? Mentoring, which is centred around human connection, is an effective way to counteract professional isolation – a very real concern as teams continue to work at a physical distance from each other.

4. To provide a blueprint for future mentorship.

Leaders have the opportunity to act as catalysts for better down-the-line mentorship. Role-model the qualities you want to see in your mentees – loyalty, commitment and compassion during adversity. This will enable them to become worthy mentors in their turn.

Evolving models of mentorship

Like everything else, mentoring has also gone online in 2020. Luckily, studies show that videoconferencing is as effective – although perhaps not as satisfying – as in-person meetings. With a little bit of practice, you can successfully have the kinds of nuanced, in-depth conversations that lie at the heart of good mentorship. Video-calls can be supplemented by tools like email, chat and text.

Interestingly, the use of virtual platforms is creating a two-way learning street between mentors and mentees. As an HBR article on socially-distanced mentoring explains: 

Mentors might discover that their mentees have much to teach them about virtual work and new technologies. And as many people are discovering, online meetings have their own rules, norms, and best practices. Both mentor and mentee should adopt a learning mindset.

Typically, mentors have focused on career aspirations and progression. While this is still vital, other types of support are now in the spotlight as well – from social connection to emotional reassurance

The psychological and social components of mentorship have also gained importance. Typically, mentors have focused on career aspirations and progression. While this is still vital, other types of support are now in the spotlight as well – from social connection to emotional reassurance.

Reaching out after a hiatus

Your mentor-mentee relationships may have become dormant over the past year, making you hesitant to get in touch. Even if you haven’t met or spoken for a while, now is a good time to renew that connection.

As you do so, take care to avoid putting pressure on your mentee. Mentorship should be a gift rather than an obligation – especially right now. Touch base with your mentee, get a sense of their personal situation, and ask if they’re available for a meeting. If yes, great – you can resume your mentoring duties.

Mentoring during a crisis

Here are seven recommendations for being a more effective mentor during this pandemic: 

1. Take stock of your capacity.

Before you step back into your mentoring shoes, assess your personal reserves. How much time, energy and emotional bandwidth do you have? Estimating your availability will help you develop a realistic schedule for mentoring.

If you and your fellow leaders at the company are stretched thin right now, one option is to cultivate a group mentoring model. This avoids putting too much pressure on any one individual, and allows mentors to take on more or less responsibility based on their current workload. A collective approach can also spark some open and helpful conversations as a community.

2. Listen reflectively.

Demonstrate care by listening generously and responding empathetically – simple yet powerful steps that will validate your mentee’s struggles and normalise their emotions. The HBR piece mentioned above gives an example:

If your mentee is describing how stressful work is, you could say, “I hear it’s really stressful-and it’s hard to know what to do with the unexpected.” If you want to dig deeper, you can ask, “What is your biggest challenge right now? What is helping? What’s going well—or still OK-in your world?” In times of stress, clarifying what is most important to your mentees can be the biggest gift of all. In so doing you help them appreciate and focus on the things that bring meaning and purpose to their life.

Mentors can also share their own experiences and feelings in turn. This lets mentees know that they aren’t alone, as well as strengthening the relationship.

3. Keep it flexible – and real.

As you provide virtual mentorship, bear in mind that you will need to be flexible. You and your mentee may be dealing with childcare, looking after elderly family members or coping with other pandemic-related obstacles. Not to mention the various distractions of WFH.

Rather than hiding or ignoring these challenges, use them to forge an authentic connection with your mentee. Don’t get stuck on conventions and formalities. Adjust, take things in your stride and look at the lighter side. If a child or pet bursts onscreen in the middle of your call, break the ice and share a laugh. There’s no better medicine for stress!

4. Map the way forward.

Help your mentees navigate the big changes triggered by COVID-19, such as limited access to managers, brand-new work routines, and shifting job responsibilities. Team members may also be struggling with bigger challenges like fear of layoffs or career derailment.

You can offer insights into the impact of the pandemic and help mentees take charge of their future growth. Identify tangible ways to stay competitive and gain visibility in the evolving workplace. In addition, encourage self-care practices to support mental wellbeing.

5. Focus on networking.

This is a good time to help your mentees expand their professional network. As the authors of the HBR piece suggest: 

Use some of your new discretionary time to leverage your social capital and sponsor mentees, opening virtual doors and making valuable introductions. 

6. Avoid being a know-it-all.

Be supportive and understanding – but also be honest! You don’t need to have all the answers or “fix” each and every thing. Your role is to create a safe space for mentees to express their fears and concerns. Give advice only on issues that fall within your expertise – for the rest, simply focus on listening and acknowledging.

7. Fortify yourself.

Driven by their desire to help, passionate mentors often put their own needs last. But remember, you can’t keep drawing endlessly on your personal reserves – at some point, the tank will run dry. That’s why it’s critical to replenish yourself: get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise regularly and engage in activities and relationships that give you joy. Micro-practices such as mini-meditations, positive affirmations and deep breathing can uplift your day and create a better mindset for helping others.

Also, as the HBR article suggests, rely on your own tribe for support: 

Just as your mentee benefits from having you and other mentors to support them, you need your own support network as well. Highly effective leaders lean on support teams of colleagues near or far and good mentors do the same, scheduling regular check-in calls with friends, family, mentors, coaches, spiritual advisors, or mental health professionals. Mentoring can feel like a solitary job, especially in a crisis: know you are not alone. 

During periods of tumult, mentorship can move the needle from fear to focus by empowering employees to anchor themselves, adapt and move forward. After an understandable hiatus this past year, it is now time for leaders to bring their focus back to this meaningful and powerful practice.

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