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  • Writer's pictureCraig Risi

Making a Success of Mentoring – Building Relationships

One of the most important arsenals in any company is its ability to develop talent within its workforce. Whereas companies place lots of emphasis on recruiting and trying to bring new skills into a company, it means nothing if they cannot nurture and develop that talent and help people grow internally. After all, without growth in both skills and challenge, people will inevitably move on elsewhere.

In order to properly develop that talent, there needs to be effective mentorship instituted. Mentors who can train and develop that talent to help them excel and get better. The problem is that mentoring does not work without the right mentoring relationships in place and the right training principles instilled to make it work. If there isn’t a deliberate plan and structure that is designed to make the most out of the different mentoring relationships, its likely to fail and just be frustration in most people’s calendars as they try to make it work. 

So, to help provide companies with a foundation to ensure they make mentoring work in their organisations, I would like to help look at two key foundational elements that are required to make a success in your mentoring space, a guideline for effective relationship building, and a platform for training. I will discuss the relationship-building in this article and then leaving the training for a second article.

Building effective relationships

Relationships don’t just happen. They require a deliberate effort to work and you cannot really expect any training to be effective without a solid relationship in place. That doesn’t mean that you need to be too concerned with finding the right sort of personality fits or look for people to be best friends, as in any organisation trying to align skills required and personalities together is probably not feasible. However, relationships can still be formed if the people involved focus on the following actions:

1)     Learning Compatibility

The focus of mentoring in my career may be mostly around technical and testing skills, but this can apply to any mentoring role. There needs to be some level of alignment where the mentor’s skills match the direction the mentee is going in. For instance, it does not make sense for a senior developer to be mentored by a junior developer, even if they are new to a company. The senior developer is likely to have gone in a direction the junior hasn’t really experienced and is unlikely to gain enough from the relationship. This does not mean they can’t learn from someone more junior than them, but not within the longer-term context of what mentoring requires.

Not only does this have the obvious effect of actually having a mentor capable of training the mentee in the areas they need assistance with, but it also creates a common goal for the pair to develop. That common goal helps to build a purpose and alignment to the relationship in which the rest of the below steps can flow. Without this, the relationship is unlikely to go anywhere and even if the rest of the relationship blossoms, it will not be effective from a learning perspective.

2)     Set Expectations

For the start of any new mentoring relationship, it is perhaps best to start discussing some expectations upfront on what a person is hoping from these sessions, time commitment they can offer and verification of their career aspirations and current abilities. This can take place over several session but is helpful to break the ice and get a relationship started with a common understanding. This will also help to form a structured plan that can then be used to further aid the learning process. It will hopefully also provide an early indication of a mentoring relationship won’t work and perhaps look if there is someone else who may be a better fit.

3)     Consistent Investment

To form any strong bond between people, the first thing required is to have a consistent meeting time. It means regular meetings and interactions so that though conversations and discussions a bond can be formed, and learning can take place. The frequency of this should be at least fortnightly, though weekly is preferable as frequent progress and feedback help to provide for more structured learning. I’ve seen many people approach mentoring in an ad-hoc manner saying that we will meet up only when necessary and this may work short-term but is less effective long term.

Mentoring is more than just solving short-term problems but helping to direct and shape a career long-term and this requires regular and active involvement that cannot be achieved on an ad-hoc basis. Yes, there will be a time when you meet up and there won’t be much to discuss, but at least you are aware of where a person is at and when things change, you will be more up to date with their learning and skillset to be able to help them more effectively.  

4)     Genuine Interest

No relationship can work if there is not a genuine interest in a person. This doesn’t mean you need to share common interests and know all the details of their personal lives, but from a work perspective, it does mean having to show an interest in their career, their daily work environment, different strength and weakness and how they learn. And this applies to both mentor and mentee.

Everyone is different and a big mistake often made with mentoring approaches is to apply the same principles regardless of whom we are working with. This is especially important when it comes to identifying and working with an individual’s different strengths and weaknesses. You cannot really identify these if you don’t take an active interest in how they work and what they do. The more you do take an interest in these things through the easier this becomes and the more meaningful the relationship will become.

5)     Vulnerability

This might be an interesting one for many people to hear, but it’s a critical one that most people miss. For any mentee to learn, their mentor needs to be aware of their weaknesses but at the same time, a mentor should help their mentee in understand where and what they have learned in the past and what they are continuing to learn. This shared learning helps to open up the discussion and makes the mentee not only more willing to learn from the mentor, but also realise that they don’t need to be perfect, that to get better is a continuous learning process. Not doing this is what creates this like imposter syndrome or stress and pressure in the learning process and you want to avoid that. And you do that through vulnerability.

We may not all have good soft skills or feel like we are great communicators, but a strong relationship can generally be established with most people if we are open to it and willing to work on our skills. I’m sure there are many more traits and skills that can be developed to make a mentoring relationship a little easier, but in my experience, if you can get these right, mentoring relationships should be able to work from both sides.  



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