Mentoring or Co-Piloting? Don’t make these mistakes

- Leadership

by Tomas Kejzlar

Mentoring should not be a one-way relationship between the mentor and the mentee. It should be a bi-directional relationship where both parties explore things and learn together. And where they create a more meaningful human connection.

The Pitfalls of Mentoring

Mentoring is something that’s very popular these days. In companies, online communities, everywhere. The idea behind it is noble — have less experienced people learn from more experienced.

Having been a part of a few mentoring activities both as a mentor and a mentee, I see several flaws with this approach. I feel it is often transformed into either a silver bullet that magically solves all problems of people development or into the easy and fast solution to get onward. (And we know that every problem has at least one simple, elegant, appealing and completely wrong solution.)

Mentoring as coaching

Some people mistake mentoring for coaching. And they spend majority of the time just asking questions. Don’t get me wrong — being an agile “coach” (a term I don’t like much), one of my key tools is asking the right questions — this could be a good strategy. But not when the mentee simply does not have the competencies or skills to come up with an answer.

A friend of mine likens this to you being dropped into the middle of a desert — if someone just keeps asking you questions “What could you do to find your way out?” chances are you are going to die there; if on the other hand someone gives you a couple of hints for example how to determine direction, you are suddenly have much higher chances of surviving.

Mentoring as a one-way street

Many mentorships I see — and sometimes even that I do — are very one-directional. The mentor is dumping his knowledge onto the mentee with a faint hope of the mentee somehow grasping, accepting and understanding it. I, for one, never had much success remembering or using things I’ve “learned” this way — usually what I need to do is discuss, think out loud and try to apply the knowledge. The best mentorships are more like conversations in which both sides participate — the mentor probably from a more knowledgeable standpoint, but even him with willingness to explore and learn new things. 

Mentoring as a theoretical exercise

As you may have realized, I am a huge fan of practicality. This may sound strange especially for people who know me and know how many books and blogposts I read and how much I enjoy discussions even about seemingly theoretical topics. But by “practicality” I mean the ability to apply what I have learned — either in something I am doing or in something I am thinking about. Yet I see many people entering mentorship programs without having at least a glimpse of practicality coming out of that. And many other people just giving very generic theoretical answers without trying to apply them to a particular situation at hand.

The Power of Mentoring

Now that you know the potential problems, let’s think about how to make coaching better. I think there are several ways how to do it, which I encourage you to try.

Mentoring as a conversation

I strongly encourage you to treat your mentoring sessions as two-way conversations where both of you participate. I like to question many things I hear and usually ask for examples or applicability to situations I have in my mind. I also like to think out loud, inviting the other person to understand more what I’m thinking, to have a real conversation.

Mentoring as a partnership

Partnership, or copiloting, is an interesting thing to try. It requires that at the beginning both parties are willing to invest time to get to a common result which makes the relationship more powerful and more focused. It also encourages more sharing, better conversations (which was worth mentioning again), and more learning opportunities. I can honestly say that the majority of my learnings come from partnerships and copiloting sessions with other people. People who are much better in some areas, and much worse in some others (or at least I like to think that.)

Mentoring as a path toward a deeper connection

For some people, myself included, it is very difficult to have great conversations right away. I first need to get to know the other person better. And mentoring could be one of the ways to do that. It again revolves around conversation because conversations create connections between people. And with better connections, you are both willing to accept, try out, and think about what the other person is telling you and even to build on that, by sharing more details, examples, and even failures.

Give mentoring a try!

To do that, these are the steps that could help you. 

Mentoring Step #1: Think about one thing that you’d like to learn more about. Think about why you want to learn more about it and how you’re going to apply that knowledge.

Mentoring Step #2: Now think about someone you could ask to venture on this learning journey with you. This person should have (some) experience in the domain in question and should be as approachable as possible.

Mentoring Step #3: Agree on what you are going to learn with that person and pay extreme attention to whether it is important to both of you.

Mentoring Step #4: Try short mentoring sessions in a frequent and repeating cadence. Monitor progress towards the learning objective as you go.

Simple, right? Because it is, I have an additional challenge for those of you who think you can help others with knowledge you have. Why don’t you ask someone you think would benefit from that knowledge/experience whether they want to pair up or co-pilot with you? It’s not about implying they don’t know their stuff. It’s simply acknowledging you have some experience that might be useful in their situation, and then offering that you can try and learn more together.

Do you have any tips to share from your own copiloting experiences? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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