What Makes a Mentor?

Reproduced with permission from, copyright Andrew Gibbons

This is to bring you up to date with some recent activities around mentoring that I hope will be of interest.

As a developmental tool, mentoring when managed well is an excellent, and cost effective workplace method for helping people to learn. Still you know all that already. The purpose of this short piece is to let you know about, access, and put to use some material I have recently generated that should be of value to anyone involved, or interested in mentoring, either first hand, or in the management of 'formal' schemes.

Anyone who has ever had any thoughts around, or prior experience of mentoring has a pretty good idea of just exactly what it takes to be a skilled mentor. Earlier this year I had a chance to pick the brains of a group of people well able to come up with some very specific thoughts on what distinguishes the best mentors from the rest.

One of my claims to fame is that I was part of the group that set up the CPD Forum (CPD is of course, a TLA - three letter abbreviation, and in full is for anyone who doesn't know, continuing professional development). These days, this Forum consists of a substantial number of people who manage professional bodies' CPD schemes, doing what they can to encourage their members to plan and keep a record of their learning and development. Don't worry, the point of this is close.

Anyway, I was invited to lead an hour or so workshop with them on 'the skilled Mentor', and used an excellent tool for specifying behavioural competences called repertory or 'rep' grid to get them to compare and contrast the behaviours of mentors - great, okay, and awful. In thirty five minutes, using the grid, they generated 250 positive statements, and 156 negative ones. I found a further 19 hard to categorise. Think of that, over 400 concise statements that describe behaviours sought in the best and the worst mentors. If you want the full list just let me know.

To give you a flavour of the 'positives' here are three of them:
'Prepared to learn with you, and has a genuine desire to empower'.
'Skilled in balancing giving out information with making you find it out for yourself'.
'Is interested in me'.

On the other hand, here are three examples from the negatives:
'Offers lip service support, but gives no impression of real interest'.
'Always appears keen to get the meeting over with and move on to the next thing'.
'Can direct conversation back to self - digresses'.

Get the flavour? What a bank of competences, and from them I have drawn up a diagnostic questionnaire to help even the best mentors identify issues in which they can target their future development. These statements invite a 'yes' or 'no' response, for example:
I possess great patience.
I can challenge assumptions skilfully.
I can avoid the temptation to direct conversation back to myself and my issues and expectations. In total, the diagnostic questionnaire has 50 such statements, and I am finding this a very direct way to help people focus on the competences needed in a skilled mentor.

You will find the diagnostic questionnaire attached. It is still under development, although I won't move far away from the current words, as these were those the Forum members used to differentiate 'good' and 'bad' mentors.

Do have a look, and put these items to use. I would be very interested to receive feedback on any further refinements and learning from the application and modification of this material.

More on-line information about the practical mechanics of the Repertory Grid technique cited in this article can be found in the 'Personal Construct Psychology' section of James Atherton's learning website.

Andrew is a management and development consultant with a particular interest in real learning within individuals, teams and organisations.
Since February 1987 he has kept a learning log, and this now has 1076 entries totally 620,000 words - not bad for a 19 scoring Activist on Honey and Mumford Learning Styles terms.
A Fellow of the IPD, and member of the upgrade panel, he helps this, and many other professional bodies with their continuous development efforts.
He spends a lot of time designing and leading management development events with a learning focus - even when working on NVQ programmes!