The environment for mentoring

by Prof David Clutterbuck

The environment for mentoring

Where and when you hold a mentoring conversation can make a significant difference to the quality of the learning that takes place.

Practical guidelines:

Choose the right location. Where will both of you feel comfortable and not self-conscious? The mentor may feel fine in his or her own office, but this is their space and may subtly influence the balance of power in the conversation. The mentee may feel embarrassed about meeting in his or her office area. Try also to avoid anywhere where the mentee may feel observed by others; or anywhere, where there are likely to be interruptions or distractions (switch off phones!) – the environment of a busy restaurant can be difficult!; or anywhere that feels cramped. Look instead for a quiet, private space where you can relax into an open and insightful conversation. Many people choose to have mentoring conversations while walking in a park or other area of greenery – there is some evidence to suggest that natural surroundings are conducive to creative thinking.
Choose the right time. Don’t “snatch a half-hour” in the middle of frenetic activity – the conversation will almost certainly be superficial. Aim for a time when you are both able to give each other your full attention – perhaps at the beginning of the day. However, note the experience of this manager in a large retail company. “Typically December is a crazy period, where everyone is busy, busy and there’s no time to stop and think. I used to avoid holding any mentoring or coaching sessions at that time. Then I discovered that people valued having a small amount of time set aside just to step back and recalibrate what they were doing and why – an island of sanity – so now I set aside time deliberately for that purpose.”
Choose the right mental state. The ideal state for mentoring is when you are both unstressed and able to step out of the day-to-day worries. In practice, however, sometimes the time someone most needs the reassurance and attention a mentor can give, is when they are feeling overwhelmed. In the latter case, it’s important to create a safe space for them, where they can feel supported in working out what’s important, what they want and what resources they can call upon to cope with the situation, then to rise above it.
The mentor needs to be sensitive to both their own state of mind and that of the mentee.
Above all, talk about what will work for both of you. Discuss what the ideal environment for mentoring would be and how close you can get to that ideal. And review from time to time how this aspect of the learning relationship is working.