Learning From Mentoring
This page explains more about the process of mentoring from a learner’s point of view. In particular, it focuses on what a learner needs to do to get the most out of a mentoring relationship, and the skills that you will need to use to manage the relationship.
At the start, it is likely that the mentoring relationship will largely be controlled by the mentor who will take responsibility for managing the process.
However, as the relationship grows and develops, you, as the learner, will probably increasingly take control to ensure that it focuses on your learning needs.
The most basic requirement is an open mind
The key skill from the learner’s point of view is to be prepared to learn. It helps to have some idea about your learning style, so that you can ask your mentor to work in a way that will help you to learn best.
You might find it helpful to have a look at our pages What is Learning? and Approaches to Learning. You may also find it useful to read about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and think about your personality type and preferences.
Choosing a Mentor
Choosing a mentor needs to be a positive process, not a passive acceptance of an imposed pairing.
If your organisation is running a mentoring programme, it is very likely that they will have a process that will offer you a choice of mentors. If so, you should think carefully about what each one can bring, as well as what you might be able to learn from and with them.
Talk to the potential mentors.
Explain to them that you’re exploring whether a mentoring relationship with them would work for you. You can’t decide without meeting them face-to-face, and you’ve got to be certain that you could work with them.
You’re going to be exploring your learning, what you want to achieve from your career, what you’ve done well and what you've done badly, and so on. Some of those discussions will involve personal thoughts and experiences, so it’s important that you feel that you can trust them.
Don’t discard any potential mentor because they aren’t quite what you were expecting.
A potential mentor doesn’t necessarily have to be someone senior to you. They could be at your level, or even below, but much better than you at particular skills.
If your organisation has a matching process, and you have been matched with that person, there is a reason. Go and explore it. You may be surprised.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about whether mentoring relationships work best with similar people or complementary types. The important issue is whether you’re prepared to try it, and see how it goes.
What Do You Want To Achieve?
You will also find it helpful to think through what you want to learn from the mentoring relationship. The best way to do this is to start broadly, by thinking about questions such as:
- What interests me?
- Where do I want to go?
- What do I need to learn in order to move in this direction?
You may also find it useful to think about whether you want your mentoring relationship to focus on a wider area, such as your career within the organisation, or your skills development with a view to a change in career, or something narrower such as the way that you are managing a particular project or task. This will help you think about how long you want the relationship to last.
A personal SWOT analysis can help you to identify areas of weakness and a potential focus for the mentoring relationship. This can also usefully feed into your choice of mentor, and whether you want someone who will complement your areas of weakness or someone who is generally quite like you and will understand where you struggle.
A Personal SWOT Analysis
This will look at your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, and help you to identify the focus for your learning:
- Strengths include your skills, experience, talents, qualifications, and personal qualities.
- Weaknesses are any aspects of these in which you believe you have a deficit that is affecting you in your work.
- Opportunities are possibilities in your environment, such as career opportunities, new projects coming up, time and space and opportunities for learning and development.
- Threats are the factors in your environment that might limit you or hold you back.
Skills To Use During The Mentoring Relationship
Learners will benefit from developing their emotional intelligence to understand their own feelings and emotions as well as those of others around them - such as their mentor. This will help you to get the most out of the mentoring relationship.
Developing your ability to reflect on your learning will also be helpful, and will be supported by an end-of-session review process with your mentor. If you don’t already use reflective practice routinely, then it can feel like a slightly odd process but it is well worth pursuing. It may be something that your mentor could help you to develop, by using it with you during the sessions to help you reflect on issues at work and what you have learned from them.
You may need to give and receive feedback. This may be particularly difficult if the relationship is not working as well as you had hoped and you need to give feedback about the way that your mentor is working. Think of it as a learning opportunity and it will be much easier to approach.
A Final Word of Warning
Not all mentoring relationships work.
With the best will in the world, some mentoring relationships are much more productive than others, and others work best at specific times or for a short period.
It is often not possible to know in advance which will work best, or how long a productive relationship will last, because such relationships depend very much on the dynamics between partners.
It’s hard but as a learner if the relationship is not working, and you don’t feel that you’re getting what you want out of it, then sometimes the best thing to do is to cut your losses. Under these circumstances, you need to be honest that it’s just not working for you and you’d rather find another mentor.
Much better that than wasting your own and your mentor’s time any more.