In ancient Greece, Odysseus — the legendary king of Ithaca and a hero of Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” — entrusted the education of his son, Telemachus, to a trusted counsellor and friend.

This wise friend, Mentor, reportedly became Telemachus’s counsellor, guide and tutor — and gave his name to the process of learning the ropes from a more experienced person.

In simple terms, the mentor is there to help the mentee to learn. Much of the learning is enabled by the mentor guiding the mentee into learning situations and then helping him to reflect on and consolidate the learning.

Mentoring is often thought of as a partnership largely because there are obligations, implicit or otherwise, that each party takes on. One key to a successful mentee/mentor relationship is to be aware of each other’s obligations and take them seriously.

Why have a mentor?

There are many benefits to having a mentor. The key to the value of a mentor is that whatever you are facing, your mentor will probably have been there before you. He can give you advice based on his experience.

This means you are benefiting from the wisdom of someone who has probably faced the same issues that you have, many times over. Finding out how your mentor dealt with a situation, and why he acted in the way he did can help you make decisions for yourself.

A mentor will provide you with an independent opinion that you can use as a measuring stick when you are faced with a difficult situation. He can also help to boost your confidence and help you avoid mistakes.

Having a mentor will help boost your career progression in a number of ways. Mentors can advise you in making decisions to further your career, and expose you to opportunities you may not previously have considered or had access to.

Mentors serve as a reference to building your network, and may even guide you on how to rise to higher levels within an organisation.

Developing leaders quickly

Growing leadership expertise in a short period of time within an organisation is a continual challenge. The speed of projects and the need for innovation have increased so that individuals are thrust into positions of management and leadership at an ever-increasing pace.

How are these individuals going to learn? But more important, how are they going to be able to quickly apply what they have learned within their organisational culture and in a hyper-competitive business environment?

In the past, an individual would learn skills and knowledge through training, education and experience, and the organisation could afford to wait around for him to get up to speed. But today, organisations need to have their people learn — and be able to apply that learning — more quickly.

Studies have proved that there are limits to how fast you can drive education and training and have it be effective. Due to economic constraints within organisations, many times the problem is not how fast to drive the education and training, but how to even find available dollars and resources for individuals who are destined to lead the organisation now and in the future.

What can organisations do to help solve this dilemma and assist in the transition between “education” and “experience”? The answer is mentoring.

Building the relationship

Once you have found your mentor, the next step is for you both to discuss your expectations and what you hope to achieve from the relationship. You need to be open to learning and have a good understanding of yourself and a desire to achieve.

Sometimes, the mentor/mentee relationship is a natural progression of a bond with a senior colleague at work or an industry contact, or it may be a relationship that you have to actively pursue.

Regardless of the means, the benefits speak for themselves. With a mentor, you will always have an experienced sounding board to assist you through tricky times and who will be there to celebrate your achievements.

No matter how small the challenge, your mentor will always understand as he has been there before and is familiar with the trials and predicaments you experience on a day-to-day basis. 

Setting the agenda

For mentoring to work effectively, the mentor must not take responsibility away from the mentee. The mentor should take responsibility for managing the relationship but should allow the mentee to “set the agenda”.

Managing the relationship involves ensuring that the mentee feels supported and encouraged, and is able to speak with the mentor without the fear of being judged. The mentor also needs to know that his discussions with his mentee and the information exchanged are kept confidential.

Article by Prof Sattar Bawany, CEO of the Centre for Executive Education (CEE Global). CEE Global offers executive development solutions, including executive coaching and leadership development programmes. For more information, e-mail enquiry@cee-global.com or visit  www.cee-global.com