Does everyone (in organisation design) need a mentor?

Years ago, I had a book by David Clutterbuck called Everyone Needs a Mentor I couldn’t find my copy when I just looked for it, so maybe I gave it away at some point.  Or maybe I stopped thinking everyone needs a mentor so didn’t need the book anymore.  The book seems to be out of print now – I could only find used copies on Amazon UK.  But the blurb reads:

‘Mentoring is the most cost efficient and sustainable method of fostering and developing talent within your organisation. Talented employees can be stretched to perform even better by exposure to high performing colleagues. Experience can be passed on more effectively one-to-one. Employees from groups that are under-represented in the organisation can be supported and developed by talking to others who have overcome similar barriers.’

Anyway, I’m newly curious about mentoring as over the last few months several people have asked me if I would mentor them in organisation design stuff and I’m not sure what I think about these requests, leading me to start to investigate to see if I agree with Clutterbuck (again?) or have a different view.

My investigation finds that the European Organisation Design Forum and Organization Design Forum ‘are launching our pilot Global Mentoring Scheme.’ (with a fee for the mentee to be introduced to the mentor.)  Like Clutterbuck’s view of mentoring, the purpose of the EODF/ODF scheme is to:

assist the learning, development and network of community members including promoting continuous professional development in the field of Organisation Design’.   It will ‘introduce mentees looking for support of experienced Organisation Designers in specific or generic OD related issues. The scheme is aimed towards newer Organization Designers or those wishing to refresh and or learn new skills/knowledge from others within the field.  It will give mentors the ‘opportunity for those wishing to spread their knowledge and or support to newer entrance to the OD world or those that wish to diversify their knowledge base. In doing so it will increase individual and intra-organisational networks and connections and strengthen the missions of ODF & EODF respectively.’

Rachel Parker tells a lovely story of setting up her own business and ‘hitting the wall’.

‘A single question floated through my mind: “How am I going to handle this?” I felt like a failure.

And then I called Gail. … If anyone could talk me off the ceiling—if ANYONE could help assuage my acute anxiety—it would be her. She did everything I could have asked her to do during that phone call. She was supportive, encouraging, and educational.’  She ends the piece asking ‘Who are the mentors in your life? … Make finding mentors as much a priority as finding new business. Schedule follow-up calls with your mentors regularly, just as you would with a potential client. … securing this kind of support is as important as your business plan.’

I agreed to meet one of the people who’d asked me to mentor him.  He then asked me what I would I like him to bring to the meeting.  As I didn’t have a specific answer and had been asking myself what, if anything, I should bring to mentor/mentee meetings, I started Googling ‘what do mentors do/say?’ My search didn’t reveal what encouragement, advice, support or challenge mentors would give around organisation design – I am left with more generic, but still useful information which is applicable to both mentees and mentors.

They nearly all suggest the mentor asking a starting question of the mentee on the lines of “What do you want?”  As one writer points out, ‘Sounds trite? It is. But that’s about as basic as it gets. You must know this …  before you [mentee] can reap the benefits of mentoring.’

Developing this idea, Vineet Chopra, and Sanjay Saint, in an HBR article explores ‘What mentors wish their mentees knew’, offering 6 habits of ideal mentees. Including Clarifying what you need, being engaged and energising and minding your mentors time.

Jo Miller has 40 questions a mentee can ask a mentor grouped into four categories:  stories, self-awareness, skill building and situations.  This could be developed for organisation design mentees – for example they could ask their mentor:  ‘What do you wish you had known before taking on your first organisation design project?’  Or I’ve heard that taking a stretch organisation design assignment could help my career trajectory. What are the pros and cons?”  Or What do you see as some of my organisational design blind spots and how can I improve?’ Or ‘What lessons have you learned along your organisation design career path that you feel would be helpful for me as I consider my own future?’

In another HBR article, the same two authors – Chopra and Saint –  mentioned earlier, write about 6 things every mentor should do, including ‘choose your mentee carefully’, saying: ‘Beware the diffident mentee who expects the mentor to keep the relationship going, or the mentee who insists on doing things their way. A mentee should be curious, organized, efficient, responsible, and engaged. One way to look for these traits is to test prospective mentees.’  (I think you could substitute the word mentor for mentee and it would be just as sensible advice).

The suggestions for testing the potential mentee are interesting, ‘For instance, we often ask mentees to read a book and return within a month to discuss it. Similarly, we sometimes give a candidate a few weeks to write a review of an article in a relevant area. In a business setting, you might ask a prospective mentee to prepare a presentation in their area of expertise, or join you on a sales call or at a strategy offsite and write up their observations. This gives you a good sense of their thinking process, communication skill, and level of interest. If they don’t come back or complete the assignment, you should breathe a sigh of relief — you have avoided taking on a mentee who lacked commitment.’  (It occurs to me that the mentee could similarly test the mentor).

What I’ve got from this brief investigation is an awareness that:

  • Mentoring is not to be undertaken lightly -it is a commitment on both sides that requires a good relationship and both parties to learn from it.
  • Mentees and mentors should choose each other carefully.  If they don’t gel it won’t work for either party.
  • Mentoring around organisation design (or any technical topic) might need more preparation than general development mentoring.  On this, I wondered whether I could develop a question bank of questions that mentees could ask organisation design mentors, or talk with people who’d been in an organisation design mentee/mentor relationship and write a few case studies to help others.
  • If it works it can be a mutually fruitful and enjoyable experience.

What’s your view on mentoring – does everyone in organisation design need a mentor?  Let me know.

Image:  Mentor, Connie Geerts