03 Sep 2020 20:44 IST

The power of being a good mentor

One of the greatest gifts a mentor can give his mentee is the gift of belief in her talent and strengths

In our last post we had looked at the power of being mentored and the attitude we needed to make the most of it. Here we will look at the flip side of the coin - something that leaders should also embrace – being a mentor. The beauty of that is it not only supports your mentee’s growth but also your own. Our facilitators at TalentEase often say that the biggest benefit of mentoring children and young adults on leadership skills and values, has been their own personal improvement and growth.

MS Dhoni’s retirement saw a spate of articles and tributes about his many leadership qualities. One was his ability to mentor and coach. He would pull a bowler aside and suggest a change in action or recommend a different place to pitch the ball. He would send in a batsman who considered himself out of form — but Dhoni’s belief in him would magically get him back in the runs. His style was subtle, he helped his players believe in themselves and each other. Small changes he suggested, ended up making a big difference to individual players and the team’s performance. What does it take to be a great coach or mentor?

Humility

By definition, the role of the mentor or coach is to not be the player. It is important for the mentor to get this distinction. “I’m not the star – my mentee is.” It requires the mentor to deliberately stand back and keep the focus firmly on the mentee. The mentor must be secure enough to not use the mentoring conversation as a proxy for demonstrating how great he is, how successfully he’s handled situations and people, how much he has achieved. His goal is the mentee’s performance. One of the all-time great football coaches Arsene Wenger described himself as a “facilitator of what is beautiful in man”. What an awesome description for what a mentor must get right!

At TalentEase we follow a process known as ARIA, that our Facilitators pursue in their sessions with children and young adults. ‘A’ is for Awareness –the first step. A mentor supports the mentee in arriving at a true awareness of the situation, the challenge or the opportunity, the skill required, the real decision that needs to be made. ‘R’ stands for reflection. This is when the mentor provides the space and the triggers for the mentee to reflect.

Take, for example, a movie clip that we often use in our decision making sessions from the film The Lion King. Simba has run away from home, convinced by his evil uncle Scar that he was the one responsible for his father’s death. His mentor, Rafiki now tells him that his father is alive. Simba is perplexed but excited, as he follows Rafiki to the lake where Rafiki encourages him to look below. Simba sees his own reflection, but Rafiki asks him to look harder and then bang the next step ‘I’ happens — Insight. Simba realises that his father lives in him. And then bang again the next step ‘A’ for Action — Simba returns home to claim his destiny.

These are critical parts where humility is necessary — the mentor has to hold back. The mentor may have an exceptional insight that he can immediately hand over to his mentee in the form of a treasured piece of advice. But it will be a second-hand insight and unlikely to lead to lasting action and transformation. For the mentee to be truly transformed, she has to own the insight, only then will the action be powerful and sustainable. This is where the mentor chooses to stay in the shadows, nudging, prompting but never playing. That is the mentee’s space, the mentee’s glory.

Sight

In that martial arts classic, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (do watch it — it’s filled with leadership lessons besides some great action), there’s a scene towards the end when our hero San Te having graduated from Shaolin, is looking for brave recruits who can help him defeat his nemesis, who killed his father and friends. He comes upon blacksmith Tung Qian-jin who has just got into trouble with the villain’s soldiers. Qian-jin fights the soldiers grabbing his long-handled hammer to do battle. But even though he is immensely strong and well built, the soldiers seem to be landing more blows than his wildly swinging hammer. He falls to the ground near San Te and the master whispers to him “Shorten your grip. It will work much better.”

Qian-jin listens and the result is immediate. His hammer now wielded correctly turns the tide. It’s this ability to see things that others don’t, that a mentor needs. His own experience, learning, knowledge of the mentee, the skills needed for the situation all come into play so that he can see exactly what is going wrong with his mentee’s performance, where a little adjustment would make a difference. One of the biggest advantages a mentor has is the benefit of distance. He is not in the situation that his mentee is in, so he is able to get a different perspective, view a different angle, spot a flaw, highlight a strength that his mentee may not even be aware of.

I remember my first boss at the Tata company I joined right after my MBA. After my first round of induction at Mumbai, I was dispatched to Chennai to support the new branch being set up. It was an exciting assignment for one so young and I dove into the challenges of understanding our clients, the production process, the people. My boss came over for a visit and we spent the whole day together as he watched me enthusiastically briefing him on the status of the existing orders and the current clients.

As we headed to the airport for his flight back, he congratulated me on the great start but then said something else. “My only disappointment is that you did not ask me for the funds to set up a sampling department.” A sampling department would have a focus on new clients, new products, on pushing growth. It was an important lesson for a young, aspiring manager — operations and ensuring the trains run on time is fine, but your goal should also be growth. His sight gave me an insight that stayed with me for the rest of my career.

Belief

One of the greatest gifts a mentor can give his mentee is the gift of belief. The belief that the mentee has within herself the strengths and talents to meet the challenge or opportunity. That she already has the solution within her.

One of our most famous TalentEase examples, is the story of the great sculptor Michelangelo. One of his masterpieces was the statue of David, ready to go into unequal battle with the giant Goliath. The marble statue was so lifelike that people asked Michelangelo how he had made a block of marble into the stunning person of David. Michelangelo is said to have replied – ‘But I did not sculpt David. David was already in the block of marble. I just removed the parts that didn’t belong.’ That is the magic of the mentor. To see the potential even when the mentee can’t. To see the promise even when the mentee can’t. To believe in her and gently, firmly guide her to that point where she can say — Yes, I can do it. I believe.

If you’d like to serve as a mentor or coach especially focused on supporting children and young adults in their leadership journey do check out https://mentorspace.talentease.com/and indicate your interest at https://mentorspace.talentease.com/become-a-mentor/.

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