My second post on this blog was on the premise that quality education and mentorship cannot be separated. It is generally agreed that mentorship is an integral part of teaching, learning and contributing to the growth of students and professionals in all fields. However, there seems to be thinking that mentorship is tantamount to meeting with mentees, listening to their issues, giving advice if you can, and waiting for the next round of students or staff to knock on your door. While it just as well to give advice on various personal and professional issues that one’s mentees might have, this should be a small part, and certainly not the only part, of any mentorship. In fact, from my experience as a manager and a mentor, I dare say that this model is neither sustainable nor interesting.

I am a big proponent of active mentorship, which I define as ‘placing the mentee at the center of the process where a mentor mostly acts as a facilitator, connector, and guide’.  I discuss six themes that  I believe should form the basis of any active mentorship model that is beneficial to mentees and mentors.

1. Mentoring by example

It is difficult to guide people down a path that one has not been on. An enriching mentorship process is one where a mentor has felt the joy and pain of an experience enough to identify with the experiences of a mentee. Further, it would be difficult to teach mentees about soft skills like time-keeping, when tardiness is a mentor’s forte. It would be a challenge to ask students to write professionally when the mentor does not abide by the same standards. It is unacceptable to supervise or teach postgraduate students when one has not been through the process themselves. It would be problematic for a mentor to ask mentees to get involved in various activities and contribute to certain causes when the mentor does not make similar efforts. An enriching process is where a mentor wears the feathers, as well as the scars, that a mentee can admire, as well as learn from. Indeed, most good stories start with ‘how did you get that?’ or ‘I know you went through the same thing that I am going through now so I would like to learn how you handled it.’ Granted, intelligence allows us to extrapolate, predict and imagine, but evidence from my own mentorship experience and those of my students indicate that better mentorship is offered through lived example. Having said this, I subscribe to the thought that behind- the-desk mentorship should take the least quota of any mentorship program. This means that as much as a mentor might have a wealth of experience and qualifications, these should mostly act as an example and motivation to the mentees and not as the sole source of information or guidance. Thus, mentorship should largely be through immersion.

2. Mentoring by immersion

A crucial aspect of active mentorship is enabling mentees to be involved in activities outside the confines of their walls. This is because mentors are not, and should not be the be-all-end-all source of inspiration for their mentees. In fact, it is myopic if the only advice that mentees receive are those within the confines of their schools or offices. This means that mentors have the task of seeking opportunities, creating networks, and building platforms where mentees can step outside their comfort zones and learn what others have to offer. While some institutions tackle this by inviting guest speakers to talk to their students and employees, this is far from enough. Inviting the new neighbor’s children to play with your children inside your home might not expose your children to anything more than new children to play with.  Thus, examples of immersing mentees in ‘the world’ include:

  • Finding and creating collaborative sessions where mentees can interact and work with those outside their environment.
  • Outreach activities by mentees should not merely be a platform for speeches.  What about a session on designing a product? What about a session on the behind-the-scenes magic of the organization? What about a brief pair-mentoring between the visiting mentees and members of the host organization?
  • A pre-requisite of guest speaking should be a contributor who is willing to go all the way. It is simply not enough to invite one-time speakers who are never heard from again. Hence, apart from inviting guest speakers to speak to mentees, I believe that guests should be tasked to create opportunities and share platforms that mentees can take part in. If the guest speaker is not in a position to create or offer such opportunities, they can be invited to run a hands-on workshop on their area of expertise.

If we are to prepare our mentees for the world, we need to immerse them in the world. One way that we can show the world to our mentees is mentoring by sharing.

  3. Mentoring by sharing

When mentors possess the wealth of information that they do, it is easy to take for granted that mentees know the same things. While, in fact, the opposite might be true. This was even more apparent to me when I started my mentorship program and a lot of the information that I had acquired over the last couple of years was actually new to my mentees. It is not for lack of motivation or willingness that mentees might not know of opportunities that a mentor might be well versed with, it might just be for lack of guidance on where or how to look. With the plethora of information that the Internet has made available, it is possible that mentees might not know where to start. Hence,  a mentor’s contribution is to show the mentee how to fish and from what lakes. A mentor’s contribution is to actively share any new information on relevant opportunities and to challenge the mentees to try and fish for the opportunity. This way, mentees not only learn how to put themselves out there by expressing interest and submitting applications, but they also learn where to look the next time and to share this information with others. Hence, they learn how to be a mentor to others.

    4. Mentoring by mentees-becoming-mentors

Just like a child who is learning how to walk by holding onto an adult’s hands, mentees may need a mentor’s hand less and less as they grow. In fact, experience has shown me that once mentees get the spark of interest and motivation, a mentor’s work becomes much easier. For example, mentees can volunteer to teach a skill such that a mentor does not have to. Mentees can volunteer to organize an event such that a mentor does not have to. However, the trick to getting to this place is to allow mentees a room for free expression and to impart on them that the mentorship process is not a giver-taker scenario, but where they are expected to eventually take control of the process and fly with it. In fact, one of the best things about mentorship is just how much a mentor can learn.

  5. Mentoring by learning

One of the reasons why I am quite passionate about mentorship is because it is one of my sources of learning new knowledge and refreshing old knowledge.  From sharing many opportunities with my mentees, I have come across many others that I might not have been aware of if I did not take the time to look. From inviting guest facilitators to mentorship workshops, I have learnt from professionals outside my circle. From building connections that mentees can benefit from, I have met new people and learnt from their professions. Learning these things not only makes me a better professional, but it also makes me a much better mentor because when connections grow, it provides a wider selection of platforms that my mentees can participate in. The experience from one mentorship process builds a rich launchpad for the next one. One way that mentors can understand what experiences they are taking from one process to another is by measuring the impact of their mentorship.

      6. Mentoring by measuring

As a scientist, I believe in proof. But science aside, while it is just as well to spend time working with mentees, it is also as crucial to measure the impact of your contribution. The model that I suggest for this is:

  • Find out demography, expectations, areas of strength and weaknesses, at the beginning of the mentorship program. This information will help you model the program according to what your mentees require, and more.
  • Run a theme-based mentorship program. Group events and activities according to the themes of the program such that balance is checked and maintained so that all the themes of the program are met.
  • Prepare a post-event survey to understand if mentees met their objectives, for most of the events.
  • As much as possible, record mentees’ sentiments.
  • Conduct post-mentorship video interviews and surveys to compare this with the pre-mentorship survey. Not only can this inform future programs it will also measure the impact of the current mentorship program.

It goes without saying that following the 6-pillar model requires immense dedication from mentors,  a dedication that might not be commensurate with any amount of pay. This is why I firmly believe that mentorship should not be lightly entered into, or with the expectation of monetary compensation. It might sound cliche to say that the true payment of any mentorship is the value that one adds to the mentees. It lies in the new connections that a mentee establishes. It lies in the new opportunities that a mentee is presented with. It lies in the light that a mentor keeps aflame in the mind and heart of a mentee by being present as an example. It lies in a contribution that the society might not compensate or appreciate, but one whose value only a dedicated mentee can understand. Through these examples and more, a mentor can positively contribute to the thinking or the life of a student, staff, friend, or colleague. And that is priceless.