Strategies for Later Mentoring in the Process

By Barry Sweeny, 2003

Early in the mentoring process, lots of the protégé’s questions and the areas in which they must learn, tend to be “one right answer” kinds of information. These “answers” are sometimes provided during orientation meetings, either to a whole group if there is one, or individually by your mentor. Examples of this kind of information include:

  • Where resources and equipment are located and how to access these
  • The procedures which the protégé must learn for every work process
  • Who the key people are
  • What the organization’s major improvement initiatives are
  • The names of other locations and rooms where meetings and training are held
  • Etc.

Later on in the mentoring process, the protégé’s questions and what they need to learn are more sophisticated and focused on more complex issues. These are typically topics which require experience and the good judgment that comes from experience to develop effective answers. The problem with that is that the good judgment has to come from making bad judgments, discovering what does NOT work, and learning to do something more effective next time.

For the protégé, their CHOICE is whether these mistakes, which are so necessary to learning…

  • Have to be made by THEM in a trial and error learning process, OR…
  • If they can learn from the previous mistakes of OTHERS like their mentor, so they don’t have to learn the lessons personally, the hard way.

The later in the mentoring process it is and the more subtle the problems and their solutions are, the truer the above statement becomes! That is so because the trickier issues require a solid knowledge of effective professional practice which has to be accumulated and mastered over considerable time. In mentoring we describe this kind of information as “TACIT knowledge”, which is information we might label “know HOW” rather than “know ABOUT”. Tacit knowledge is the harder knowledge to share.

However, this challenge is not solved as obviously as it may seem. This is true because, at this later mentoring stage, mentor’s may not realize how much they know themselves and that all of that knowledge has to gradually be learned by their proteges, and probably from the mentor. It’s as if the mentor knows it all and has to consciously recall that others may not know what mentors take for granted.

IF YOU ARE A PROTEGEIf a protege’s mentor does not realize there are things the protege needs to learn, but the PROTEGE knows what those things are, or can at least ask questions about those things, then their inquiries can prompt the mentor into discussions of these important but more complex topics. In other words, the mentoring pair can be effective and accomplish it’s goals IF at least ONE of the partners understands what is needed and seeks to make happen what is needed, AND if the other partner defers to the issues to first person has raised.

  • Earlier in the mentoring process it is more often the protégé who must defer to the mentor’s direction.
  • Later in the mentoring process it may be the mentor who must defer to the protégé’s direction.

That “switch” is what makes the later stages of mentoring so tricky. It requires the partners to evolve and switch from roles which worked earlier, but which may not be so effective later. And THAT is why an effective training for mentors in the generic mentoring process is so crucial. It’s easier to make these tricky adjustments when we can anticipate what’s ahead and consciously realize the challenges we must address.

If a protege’s mentor does not have the preparation to anticipate these changes and is not responding to protege needs as the protegefeels is best, what can the protege do?

1. One rather subtle solution is to ask questions which will prompt the mentor to consciously talk through what they may know about the mentoring process and how things change as they progress.

2. If that doesn’t help, it is more than likely a lack in the mentor’s training, not a bad mentor. In that case, the protege needs to be less subtle. The protege should just revert to the advice at the top of this box and ASK for what they feel is needed.

Managers and mentors must give protégés the time to do the vast amount of learning that is required.

Managers and protégés need to allow mentors the time they need to accomplish this gradual “teaching” of the protégé about these more complex level skills and situational, more tacit, levels of professional knowledge. The more subtle, situational, and rich the knowledge that’s needed, the more time it can take to learn it, and the harder it is to teach it to others.

In fact, one of the best ways to teach this high level information is allowing the protégé to “shadow” the mentor during work so the protégé can observe WHAT the mentor does, HOW it is done, and ask questions on the spot about WHY it is done that way.

  • The WHAT and the HOW can be learned through observation because these are behaviors we can see. That is NOT the case with the WHY
  • The WHY information is the tacit, “know how” stuff, and that is all about the internal decision making process! It can not be learned through observation, which is why the protégé’s questions are so crucial to revealing it. What you ask prompts the mentor to consciously “unpack” and articulate their thought processes, their weighing of alternates and choices, and their reasons for making the choices they do. THEN, the protege CAN access what they need to learn and can grow in these critical, more sophisticated ways.

Rest assured, mentoring is a powerful support for protégé learning and it WILL ACCELERATE the protégé’s learning curve, even if the mentor is less experienced as a mentor. And if the mentor IS experienced in the mentoring process, the protégé’s growth can be sped up so it takes about one third the normal time needed for equivalent growth by an unsupported employee. In other words, effective mentoring can help a protégé attain in one year what supervisors say normally takes unsupported employees three years. That’s worth showing considerable patience and working to create!

Therefore, everyone in the mentoring relationship needs to both BE patient, BUT also work consistently, using the suggestions offered here, to help the mentor achieve it.