Mentoring – be prepared

Being a mentor is a much more challenging job than teaching or coaching.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

The focus of a teacher is to transfer knowledge and develop the mental agility of the learner. Contact between the two is typically confined to regular periods at an educational institution. There is usually little chance of getting involved in matters outside the course content.

Coaching is different. The relationship that develops is much closer and discussions range far and wide. Sometimes a coach will become a mentor.

Mentoring is a deeper and more influential activity. In most cases, it is never planned, but simply develops between two people who happen to end up working together, with the mentor usually being the elder of the two.

The people I consider my mentors were great teachers and coaches, but they were much more than that. In addition to technical or business skills, they passed on to me the benefit of their experience with the job at hand and their knowledge of life in general.

It’s a tough job – get trained for it
My question, then, is how is it possible to initiate or arrange a successful mentorship between two people who have never met before? My mentor relationships – and I’m sure yours too – did not follow plans or blueprints. They were relationships that simply happened over time.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is why we see so many ‘arranged’ mentorships in agriculture fail. Mentoring is a tough job. Its success depends far more on the skill of the mentor in building trust and respect than it does on the mentor’s ‘expertise’. Without some specialised training for the job, it is well-nigh impossible to make a success of it.

Two crucial rules before you start 
If approached to mentor someone with whom you have no existing relationship, do so by all means. But before you start, insist on two requirements:

  • Make sure you and the learner are matched! This means much more than simply meeting him or her and asking a few questions. It means both of you going through a professional matching process which identifies factors upfront that could render you incompatible.
  • Get both the learner and yourself some specialised training to ensure that you both know what you’re letting yourselves in for (see panel below).
  • To succeed as a mentor, you will have to work with someone for years. If you go into it unprepared, it could be a recipe for frustration and disappointment. 

Get help

  • AgriSETA seems to be the obvious place to look, but my enquiries to this organisation went unanswered.
  • The Standard Bank Centre for AgriBusiness Leadership & Mentorship Development also sounds promising, but here too my enquiries met with little success.
  • Execoach (www.execoach.co.za), Mentors (www.mentors.co.za) and AgriAcademy (www.agriacademy.co.za) all responded promptly and professionally. They will design a programme for you and your learner.