Project Management Institute

Mentor or tormentor?



When you begin to consider the role of a mentor, remember to think of Ulysses. He left his son in the care of an old and trusted friend: Mentor. The namesake role translates today to sponsor, coach, tutor, guide, confidant and counselor—effectively gaining an apprentice. Experience has shown that occasionally, the mentor falters and becomes a dictatorial, menacing overlord who demands and exhorts the apprentice in the direction of the mentor's personal goal rather than the goal of the apprentice.

If you have the occasion to be trusted, valued and respected enough to share someone's life, this requires treatment with utmost care. You don't have to imagine the nurturing required to support hopes, ambitions, frailties and concerns. Becoming a mentor is a tremendous opportunity to gain insight into another person's perspective and eventually learn, increase your personal competence and expand your communication and management skills.

Having mentored for some years now, I know the joy of providing a carefully, gently and precisely aimed kick-start to an individual's ability to attain and exceed their potential and grow. Wearing the mantel of a mentor, I look to:

  • Share commitment to achieve task completion. Clearly state goals, steps to achieve them and individual contribution to their achievement
  • Help team members take risks. Provide opportunity for people to gain awareness of their personal risk preference and then give the reason or value in extending or removing boundaries
  • Assist individuals in managing their natural reactions to risks and issues. Clearly accept the positive and negative elements that cause their perceptions and invite them to see alternative vistas
  • Be a transitory figure in a person's life. State the temporary nature of the mentorship, enforce the individual's ability to perform, resolve and rise to each life event or experience autonomously
  • Enhance mentees’ work performance. Acknowledge their current abilities and agree how best to extend them
  • Support quality of work/life balance. Respect personal preferences and private commitments, and working openly and honestly to ensure that due consideration is given to all major stakeholders and commitments.

To become a good mentor, start by understanding your role and dedicating your time, selflessly, for another's development. The dedication of a mentor to relationship building over a period of at least 18 to 24 months requires high commitment: the open and honest communication of challenges, potential solutions, risks and subsequent learning, dedication to documentation and feedback is critical.

Good mentorship requires honesty, diligence, respect for privacy and an ability to focus on another's beliefs and values. The challenge is to understand yourself well enough to know whether you are able to dispassionately listen to another's choices, to objectively critique the potential each choice offers and to see that your mentee often makes choices against your “better judgement.”

The consistency of approach to listening, discussion and feedback is crucial.

You can start to understand your mentee by focusing on personal vision. Ask the mentee to describe his or her goal in terms of a piece of art, music, poetry or sport embodied in an individual, then test these analogies to understand the drivers or appeal for the vision and determine the personal commitment to achievement.

Base your relationship around normally hidden individual attributes including:

  • Self-Belief/Self Esteem—The belief in what is possible, reasons for limitations, willingness to see potential
  • Values/Norms—Background, priorities, values in friendships, associations, feedback and appearance
  • Culture/Education—Family background, country and business exposure, language and other cultural influences
  • Experiences—The personal and professional times that have shaped their lives; key people who influenced choices past and present
  • Risk Preferences
  • Prejudices Regarding Self and Others.

As a mentor, you are charged with the discipline to schedule and meet regularly, for dedicated amounts of time, with detailed documentation and follow-up. The consistency of approach to listening, discussion and feedback is crucial.

Both people require the freedom to speak openly without recrimination or reprisal. The mentor must be clear that his or her role is that of support and guidance—not direction and leadership. To make the time productive, goals must be set. The Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound (SMART) mnemonic can help capture the essence of the goals, the criteria for success and limitations of time and effort. These must be written down and regularly revisited to allow for progressive elaboration or, indeed, complete change.

Trust between people must be earned. As mentor, you are tasked with complete confidentiality of discussion. Only with prior agreement can any issue be aired with someone outside the relationship. Mentoring is a gradual process, and one that must be carefully nurtured and developed with due respect for an individual's cultural preferences. PM

Reader Service Number 096


Reader Service Number 184

Sheilina Somani, PMP, is owner of Positively Project Management and vice president, education, for the PMI Diversity Specific Interest Group.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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