Self-made – with a helping hand

29th July 2022 Posted by

Blog by Dr Tracey Leghorn, Chief Human Resources and Health and Safety Officer, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK.

Life stories about ‘self-made’ successful people are very compelling. When we hear how a person triumphed against the odds, or rose to the top in business, their profession or sport, it’s inspiring.

What tends to be overlooked though is that, often, there was someone along the way who offered support, encouragement, or example at a crucial time, making a difference (and sometimes a decisive one) in our hero/heroine’s progress.

The vast majority of us have had the benefit of formal education and employer training that helped us develop and get where we are now in our careers. But similarly, more informal support and advice will have helped us on our path too, even if we didn’t recognise it at the time. In my own case, I have had several managers who have particularly helped me learn, develop and advance my career. Their encouragement and insight made a difference to my direction and progression.

Photo credit paulbox©

I’ve seen this happen around me and heard colleagues acknowledge help received from more senior employees. Our SUEZ culture and values encourage this informal mentoring, which is also a by-product of various initiatives – some not designed primarily for that purpose – such as our networks for women and inclusion and diversity. This is in addition to our more structured programmes for apprentices, graduates and interns.

The nature of mentoring is such that it can provide a personal boost that complements the other training and development opportunities that we provide. In a very diverse, national business, we want to nurture this one-on-one tutoring company-wide. Which is why we launched our formal mentoring programme in March. This followed several months’ preparation, much of it focused on the selection of mentors and developing the associated training for them.

A good mentor

What makes a good mentor? As well as having relevant expertise, it’s crucial to be enthusiastic about sharing it. A good mentor is eager to invest in others but also respectful and understanding of people who may have had a very different background.

The mentor’s role is multi-faceted, so it requires a broad set of skills and character traits. As a role model, our mentors were chosen because they live the SUEZ values. We were looking for someone who can be advisor and confidant, a connector – helping the mentee build their network – and, when more applicable, a coach.

In HR and training circles, many draw a sharp divide between coaching and mentoring. They do differ in terms of how directive versus non-directive the support is, how structured, and the duration of the relationship. But there’s overlap too. We believe that providing feedback on observed performance can be part of the mentoring process. It often benefits the mentee by building the self-confidence to analyse and solve problems on the way to becoming more effective decision-makers. There’s a coaching component too when it comes to encouraging self-directed learning and spurring someone on to push toward goals.

So, an effective mentor is patient, committed and has good interpersonal skills. It’s essential to be objective and open-minded too. Openness is necessary as your ideas, which may seem rooted in long experience, could be challenged by the mentee.

This is just one of the ways in which the mentor can gain too from the exchange. Nothing teaches us like teaching others. It clarifies and refreshes, updating our knowledge in some cases. Apart from this self-development – and the satisfaction of passing on our know-how – the insights into the perspective, challenges and motivations of more junior colleagues also inform and enrich us as managers and mentors.

When we looked for these qualities, we had no shortage of candidates. The first phase of the programme launched with 25 mentors across the business. They all joined in a ‘Preparing to Mentor’ workshop, where we explained our approach and goals, shared tips for making the most of the mentoring relationship, and honed the key skills involved.

Selecting the mentees

The majority of our first 70 mentees are those identified through our talent management interventions. Also, recent graduates, apprentices, joiners in a managerial role, and secondees. Managers play a key part in identify emerging talent across the organisation. For the launch of the new mentoring programme, we also asked our Regional Directors to nominate three individuals in their areas of the business who’d benefit. As the programme builds momentum, we’ll offer mentoring to a wider group of people.

Mentees also had their own training session, geared to ensuring they maximise their opportunities. It’s important that there is ongoing support. This includes online access to a Mentoring Community on our intranet.

Like their mentors, our mentees need to be committed, open to honest feedback, and respectful – of their mentor’s expertise and of the confidences and personal experiences they may share. That does not preclude questioning advice, having listened, clarified and reflected on the issues being discussed.

The challenge for the mentee is to be willing to take responsibility for setting and achieving their own development goals. Mentors share, they don’t spoon-feed; they give sound advice rather than instruct; so, it’s up to the mentee to own their own solutions.

These principles are made clear in the preparatory training and are reflected in the mentoring agreement (covering the meeting schedule and mentee’s key goals) that both parties sign up to when they meet in an orientation session before the process starts – or I would prefer to say, before the mentoring relationship commences.

Some of our mentees are now a couple of months into their action plans, which normally run for 6-12 months. Our Learning and Development Managers are supporting the programme as it proceeds, and they will facilitate two workshops sharing best practice, while also identifying any additional input that may be required. Participants will also be encouraged to provide feedback on completing their individual mentoring programme, so we can continually improve the programme.

But the formal end of the programme doesn’t have to be the end of their mentoring – the relationship can move to an informal footing if it suits both sides. This is what has tended to occur with mentees I’ve mentored over my career, and particularly more recently, as a Mentor on the CIPD Aspiring HR Directors mentoring programme.

The feedback so far across our business has been fantastic. Mentors and mentees alike have been enthusiastic. It gives me confidence that the programme will unlock more of the talent within the company, and boost knowledge transfer. Retention and engagement levels can only benefit too.

The difference the programme will make to people’s personal development will encompass the tangible and intangible. It may initially be hard to gauge. But I know that, over time, our mentees will recognise that their achievements aren’t entirely self-made – and they will appreciate the helping hand offered by more experienced colleagues and leaders in our business.

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