Mentoring in challenging times

The Link Mentorship Program

Mentoring through challenging times

by Melissa L. Schlimm

Infection numbers are going through the roof, job security is non-existing, and the future is vague, fuzzy or blurred, if at all visible. Yes, this is painting the picture of Covid-19.

The stress, that Covid-19 is creating, goes beyond anything most living humans have previously faced. That is why it is critical, that everyone’s thinking becomes solutions-oriented to stabilize the mindset and bring back optimism “Yes, we can!” Right, Barrack?

Amongst other solutions, such as coaching, counseling or virtually having wine with friends, mentoring could be a leg up or two to stabilize the mindset. Mentoring is usually reserved for exceptional employees or talents. Mentoring is also a great tool to support minorities, such as The Link mentoring community operating since 2013 which provides female professionals, with experienced professionals who help them navigate their challenges.

Why mentoring

Covid-19 turned out to be a challenge for all of us. We react differently to the new way of life or work and some may find comfort in analyzing and comparing the latest news. Others may find comfort in staying busy or finding new ways of establishing the new routine and shutting the latest news out of their lives.

Different things work for different people, hence if something works, why not share it with somebody who is struggling? In some ways, this has started with celebrities posting on social media about their lockdown life, with bloggers sharing their tips on how to occupy homeschooled kids or through the talk show host of choice recording right from the comfort of their own homes.

Sharing advice and offering guidance has already become popular on the web and it may be a good idea to put a concept around it to increase the benefit of everyone involved. That concept could be mentoring.

The roles within a mentoring relationship

A mentoring relationship, also called mentoring tandem, consists of one mentor and one mentee.

  • The role of the mentor is to support the mentee by listening or talking to her and sharing previous life or work experience.
  • In this process, the mentor may give pep talks, influences decisions or provides an objective perspective on the mentee’s situation.
  • The role of the mentee is to prepare and define a clear goal for the mentorship, to ensure that the time is well spent on both sides.
  • Honesty and willingness to share failures are part of the “job description” of a mentee.
  • Both meet virtually or in-person to discuss topics that present challenges to the mentee or require a new set of eyes and perspective.

The benefits of mentoring

A key argument for mentoring, is that both parties benefit from the mentoring relationship. We may rarely listen to our own advice of our inner voice, but we will physically listen to it when talking to our mentee. This will influence us in two ways. On the one hand, our own message is heard by us and may spark new ideas for our own situation. On the other hand, we perceive how the other party, the lucky mentee, becomes more and more relaxed. The second point is interesting, because as social animals, we adapt our behavior to our environment. If the mentor perceives that the mentee is starting to relax with what is being said, the mentor will relax as well. The capability of adapting maybe humans’ strongest weapon to fight Covid-19 and probably the one we pay least attention to. We are adaptable to every new situation and need to simply allow the adapting process to start.

Let’s take a closer look at the individual benefits of the mentor tandem.

The benefits for mentors are:

  • Feeling personally fulfilled and valued as a role model
  • Stimulating own learning such as sharpening communication and managerial skills
  • Reflecting on oneself and on own objectives
  • Finding the right words for the needed pep talk or ideas for new approaches in individual situations.

The benefits for mentees are:

  • Increasing self-awareness and self-discipline
  • Having a sounding board and receiving feedback that accelerates the own learning and development
  • Getting an unbiased, objective opinion on the situation – a source of stretch and challenge
  • Looking at challenges like Covid-19 provides an objective look at the situation instead of being emotionally involved
  • Benefitting from the experience of long-time seniors

The challenges of mentorship

Mentoring can be a solution to get new perspectives in times of Covid-19, but a successful mentoring tandem requires considering two stumbling stones. Covid-19 has managed to make us feel less safe than ever and it is important to find solutions to conquer the challenges ahead of us in the most resourceful way. The challenges are tough, thinking of an economic depression such as, or maybe even worse than the Great Depression in the 1930s or the Spanish Flu in 1918, so let’s clear the hurdles for mentoring.

The first hurdle: Feeling safe as mentee and mentor

The first hurdle to clear with the mindset of El Cid Campeador, a Spanish knight and celebrated national hero, is to feel safe in the mentorship relation.

The mentor needs to feel safe to offer mentoring – being El Cid Campeador for somebody else. Everyone understands the severity or is at least affected in some way by Covid-19 resulting in a number of people who can share advice, guidance or suggest professional solutions to his mentee. I have been a mentor with The Link myself and the most interesting experience was to mentor someone, whom I wanted to win as my client.

When I was matched with my mentee and in the spirit of sharing my experience with my mentee, I shared learnings, that I would not necessarily want to share with a potential client. It turned out, that for my mentee, these were the essential learnings. My mentee benefited from hearing about times when I failed or lost a project and the way I dealt with that failure. She is not a business owner like myself, but my experience was still helpful for her, as it was an advice she could put into practice herself.

Although no one has ever experienced anything like Covid-19, their skills, experience or acumen developed over time are transferrable to offer advice and guidance. If you have a role, that requires you to manage people, innovate processes or improve status quo, voilà again, you have the right toolbox to mentor somebody in these tough times.

The mentee needs to feel safe as well to reveal to somebody else the “doomed” individual situation and accepting the fact, that the future mentor in front of oneself, through virtual means, of course, may have an answer. Consequently, the next step to accept mentoring as the solution, is to nurture the essential quality required to become a mentee, which means to cultivate courage. Another mentee of mine had shared, that once she learned that I’m her confidant and her challenges were safe with me, she started to benefit tremendously of the mentorship. That matched my own observation of her becoming more courageous in our conversations. She shared her challenges without hiding embarrassing details or pretending to know something when she was not.

A mentee who feels safe, becomes more courageous, which will allow her to share her situation with the mentor, and voilà, as the French say, we have the right mindset for becoming a mentee.

The second hurdle: Officially engage the mentor

The question about selecting the person that has the potential of being the shining knight in the venture ‘mentorship’, is easy. As mentioned above, everyone who manages people successfully or innovates processes has transferable skills that can help dealing with Covid-19 in some way. The second hurdle is rather: how do I make my mentorship official?

And this is how: Imagine Carl, an executive in a multinational organization who lives through the Covid-19-lockdown with a mixture of worries about his kids and career perspective. Carl has an old college buddy from his time studying in no man’s land, to whom he hasn’t spoken in a while, as both were too busy with glamorous careers. In times when additional perspectives may provide a better picture of the situation, Carl thought it is time to reconnect. After exchanging updates on each other’s lives, they talk about the unavoidable topic Covid-19. Carl may find that Tom has different approaches as he is in a different situation or he may even find, that asking Tom for an opinion brings him new insights.

The basis for mentorship is there and the only missing element is calling it “mentorship” by asking the question “Would you be available to connect again in a couple of weeks as my mentor and to springboard new ideas?” Voilà again.

In my previous role, as Head of Learning & Development, I met this fantastic Lady called Aisha, a GCC National, who had just graduated and was doing an apprenticeship with my company. She was transitioning through the departments and I think of her until today, as she did exactly that. After her month with me, she sat me down and shared with me the plan of her remaining time at the company, closing with the question, if I would have Lunch with her once a week for her to bounce off ideas for her next step in her career. Head on she had asked me “Melissa, I have four weeks left and I was wondering if we can meet for lunch and I can get advice from you on my next steps in my career, as my mind changes every day and I can’t keep up with where I’m heading too.” Was that easy? Probably not, but it was exactly what she needed and what she got from me as a result of asking.

Getting out of the box

The reality of Covid-19 may feel for some that they have much more time, especially if they are in a service industry. Many executives though are busy executing business continuity plans and may think (if they read until here) that it is the wrong time to take on another time-consuming task. Whether you are busy or not, should not determine whether you spend time on mentoring. Especially if you are busy it is important to not fall into the hamster wheel of “doing for the sake of doing” without challenging where the hamster wheel tasks lead to. Get outside perspectives, new ideas and share your challenges to stay efficient and outside of the hamster wheel, although it may look like a career ladder showing upwards.

As a reader, you may find it odd to think that either Carl or Tom open up to each other for professional guidance. After all they are men and men don’t share feelings or have career fears in the first place. Also, why would they? And that is the issue that could stop us from benefiting from each other: we end up not daring to ask for support, help or advice. This brings us right back to hurdle No. 1 and the need to have the courage to enter into a mentorship relationship in the first place.

If you are a woman looking for support, be fast and suit up some courage to not miss out. How? One way could be, to join the Link Community. Check out The Link website or join the LinkedIn Group to know when the next Cohort is starting in September 2020 and join as a mentor or mentee.