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Conquering the Three Challenges of Mentoring

‘No one can teach anyone anything of significance’ wrote the legendary psychologist Carl Rogers in his classic work, On Becoming a Person. The purpose of mentoring is to help another remember, renew and make ready to use. Mentoring is the facilitating a bridge between knowledge from the mentor and understanding inside the mind of the protégé. That bridge is insight—the spark that fires the engine of wisdom; the “aha” that turns confusion and uncertainty into understanding and confidence.

Archeologists excavating the pyramids discovered wheat seeds that dated back to around 2500 BC. As in the tradition of antiquity, the seeds were there for the dead pharaoh to eat if he got hungry.   The find was important because it would enable scientists to determine what variety of wheat was in use in the ancient world and could be invaluable for engineering new types of wheat. Out of curiosity, the scientists planted the 4,500-year-old wheat seed in fertile soil and an amazing thing happened. The wheat seeds grew! The first challenge of mentoring is enabling the insight to happen in the mind of the protégé. It is the process of awakening, nurturing and blossoming—just like the wheat seeds.

The second challenge is coping with recognition that protégé learning is a door only opened from the inside.   In a brain-based work world (as opposed to a brawn-based world), learning involves much more than rote and practice. Effectiveness relies on comprehension not simply the proficiency. Such higher level competence can only be achieved if the protégé invites in the mentor’s wisdom.

Learning requires moving from novice to mastery. Rarely does this occur without mistake and error. The third challenge of mentoring is creating the type of relationship that encourages the protégé to take the risk to publicly make mistakes. Taking an on-line course is quite different than showing ones inadequacy in front of his or her protégé. This is exacerbated by the fact that most protégés enter the relationship feeling one-down. Even if mentoring is peer to peer, one has expertise the other lacks and needs. It is for this reason a partnership relationship is most like to bring the equalitarian approach needed to foster a safe setting for risks taking.

Mentoring from a partnership perspective is fundamentally different from the classical “I’m the guru; you’re the greenhorn” orientation. Mentoring from a partnership perspective means “We are fellow travelers on this journey toward wisdom.” Stated differently, the greatest gift a mentor can give his or her protégé is to position that protégé as his or her mentor. However, a learning partnership does not happen, it must be created. And, the mentor must take the lead in crafting it.

This blog was written by Chip R. Bell.  He is founder of the Chip Bell Group and manages their Atlanta office. Prior to starting the Chip Bell Group in the early ‘80s, he was Director of Organization and Management Development for NCNB, now Bank of America. He is the author of several best-selling books and his work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and USA Today. He is hosting a webinar for HRDQ, available for viewing in the archive, on July 30th titled Managers as Mentors: Building Partnerships for Learning

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