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Understanding the role and benefits of a mentor

Mentorship is not a job to be taken lightly and it is not always one for which we have time to plan. To address both the role and benefits it requires a more foundational discussion of the necessity for a mentor-mentee relationship and its different forms. You cannot build the remaining structure of your personal and professional project without a good foundation.

Larry Bridgesmith addresses the needs for effective communication from a top-down perspective in his post titled, Crisis Communication and Management: Key Principles and PracticesHe points out the need for a cohesive team of stakeholders who have a solid message.


This same mentality applies to a mentorship and will be critical to the mentee’s development. I do not advocate for a team of mentors to one mentee, but that the general attitude of what Larry writes is vastly important to a mentorship.



Many times, the mentee has no understanding of the need for a mentor because we all believe that we have things figured out by a certain point in our lives. This is not really a failing of the mentee or even of our social construct because of our own knowledge biases. Thus, companies and groups create a formal mentorship system to address this. Other times the mentorship grows more organically in the sense that two people just seem to be on the same course of understanding. Just that one has more of a specific understanding of the particular topic. I will categorize two basic types of mentoring here which are Formal and Informal.


Formal

A formal mentorship is probably the preferred method since preparation and pre-planning are helpful when approaching any development issues, a mentee might have during their growth in learning. The formal method allows for a structured meeting schedule and tasks to be completed on the part of the mentee. Now, this does not remove the mentor from the equation when it comes to expectations. A good program will require both parties to achieve separate but aligned goals. A mentor who thinks they do not need to learn anything is ineffective at best and probably should enter their own “menteeship” (My term) with a more experienced mentor before becoming a full mentor. Sometimes, however, that is not a possibility, and we have to do the best we can with what we have.


These are a few points that could help here.

  • Make a schedule.

  • Create action items.

  • Create deadlines for completion.

  • Thoroughly review.

  • Understand the importance of privacy.


Make a schedule.

It is important to schedule meetings for the formal process and stick to it because a meeting not scheduled is a meeting not attended. This inaction falls prey to the “let’s meet next week sometime” attitude and will lead to a more haphazard mentorship process. It is potentially doomed before it starts and this falls on the mentor who is supposed to be the one guiding the mentee.


Create action items.

In the initial scheduled meeting, you should create action items for the mentee to complete as an evaluation of where they are in the development process. Subsequent meetings should include action items for both parties to complete. These dual action items are derived from the discussion of the past items and are intended to move the process through a measured system to a pre-planned destination.


Create deadlines for completion.

Not all of the action items need to be completed by the next meeting because some things are more inclined to be a long-term goal and thus require a longer multi-stepped system to complete. However, there are many items that can be completed within a couple of days to a week. The initial assessment should be written so as to discover which items need more attention and which are fairly easy.


Thoroughly review.

At each meeting you should begin by reading the previous action items and discussing any progress that has been made. In the case of the multi-step process, you should break it down to only the item designated for that meeting. This keeps a confusing conversation from happening and any other discussions can take place via between meeting emails, conversations, and phone calls.


Understand the importance of privacy.

Privacy is critical, especially in a work setting. We have a very litigious society and things that might not seem offensive may result in the company getting sued and someone getting fired. In the formal setting it is necessary to know what can be talked about and what cannot. This does require a meeting with management to set the general guidelines of the mentorship program.


Informal

Informal mentorships are like I said more organic and may not be a company created program, but they still need to be organized by the mentor and should address the needs of the mentee. The informal mentorship could develop in any environment and may only last for a brief period of time. Many times, this “program” is one that the mentee will initiate through a respect for the mentor and the mentor may not know it is even happening at first and is more of a friendship. However, it is the mentor’s responsibility to see the potential opportunity to help someone progress through light-handed guidance. I say that because this is not the regimented and required meeting structure of the formal process. This one is made up of short conversations at the coffee pot or sharing a non-offensive inside joke in a larger group setting.


The important points here are much more subjective.

  • Make time.

  • Hear concerns.

  • Offer advice and support.

  • Contemplate.

  • Keep things private.


Make time.

Once both parties have accepted the relationship it is important to make sure that time is allowed to talk and/or hang out. Now, this is a two-way street and both parties need to state and accept the level of mentorship/friendship to which they are willing to commit. If one believes they are “best friends” and the other “just work friends” and they do not address this, it will cause a problem. It does not mean that mentorship cannot happen, but it will be a much shorter interaction. However, it can still have worth even if one person exits the relationship because of this imbalance.


Hear concerns.

This is not a structured action but is one that is discovered when having conversations about work, life, family, and other concerns. It is important for the mentor to pay attention to these informal conversations so they might notice any areas where the mentee feels they are lacking knowledge. These chats are important, and it is also necessary for the mentee to hear the mentor’s advice, but also to hear any concerns of the mentor that the mentee could help with. After all this relationship is many times based on a friendship foundation and friends help one another.


Offer advice and support.

As mentioned above, this is a two-way communication stream, and the informal mentorship is a relationship in that both parties could be a mentor this time and a mentee the next time. The advice flows both ways and is supportive of the relationship more than the individuals involved. This is all dependent on the level of friendship and length of mentorship, but while in the agreement advice and support are significant actions to be noticed. Even after the mentorship ends, it is important to keep the lines of communication open in case a new mentorship opportunity presents itself.


Contemplate.

After a mentorship interaction it is important to reflect on the advice given and what was said in the conversation. A word misspoken could do more damage than good in a mentor-mentee relationship. If something was not fully explained and one feels that there may be a misunderstanding, it is important to get back in contact with the other person and make sure they recognized the point. This is a personal observation and requires attention to another person’s feelings because we can apply logic to every situation and the direct approach is a highly effective way of communicating, but sometimes a more gentile response is needed.


Keep things private.

Privacy here is not about the company per se but is about the individual confiding a sensitive secret to another person. There is a level of trust that is given and expected considering the social construct of the informal mentorship situation. If that level of trust is betrayed the relationship is forever damaged and could even be destroyed. This also leads to either the mentor or mentee being damaged mentally and possibly physically. We get caught up in our own issues and sometimes forget that other people are going through many of the same issues. We need to be mindful of others and their mental state and act accordingly.


Conclusion

Now, the takeaway here is not that one of these methods is better than the other but that we need to be aware of which is required, or which is already happening.


Formal mentorship is a good method to use when there is already a structured environment and when there is also a predefined set of needs. This can be seen as more preferred in a work environment by the management team and is often managed in a learning program that can also be used to judge a person’s professional progress through the ranks.


Informal mentorship is a method that can be mildly structured, but it seems to work best when both parties have an extra level of interpersonal communication. There is a place for a company set of guidelines on how to have a work friendship or more accurately a set of suggestions on how to be friends at work without causing a negative work environment for others. Outside of work this is up to each person’s own guidance on which they should rely.


Remember, whichever path you are on it is of utmost importance to maintain a level of concern and attention to the other’s issues and experiences. Effective communication and mentorship is predicated on an understanding of the general societal mores and how we should interact with one another to achieve a better work life and ultimately a better world.

Now, go out and mentor someone.




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