Building a ‘repertoire beyond advice’

By Dr Kay Guccione, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Glasgow, and FLF+ Network Mentoring Specialist.

This blog is part of a series written for our FLF+ Network Leadership Mentors, and is provided open access so that it can be used by anyone who is interested in improving how they mentor others.

My work in mentoring, and mentor development naturally covers ‘training’ in good mentoring practice. Actually, I prefer to say mentor ‘development’, because ‘training’ is too didactic a notion to be a good way of describing how I support new mentors to get to grips with the practices involved. Mentoring is in itself a facilitative, non-directive activity which I aim to teach by example, and through offering mentors choice about what they want to include in their toolkit. Structuring and delivering good quality developmental conversations for your mentee is a personal practice as well as a professional practice.

As with all types of leadership practice, there’s not a ‘right way’ to do mentoring, each mentor chooses their own approach, style and practices, and chooses how and when to apply them in different partnerships, situations and contexts. However, there are certain frameworks into which we fit these practice choices, and the framework for good practice in mentoring, is that we avoid ‘telling’ ‘instructing’ and ‘giving advice’ whenever there’s a better way to support our mentee to develop.

That said, advice can be great. Giving advice is almost always intended as a helpful behaviour, done with the best of intentions to support our mentees, colleagues, friends, and families, who present us with a problem. But is our advice always received as intended? It’s likely not, we have all witnessed the frustrations that unsolicited advice can provoke. When we think of a mentoring session, it’s common to think of two people who sit down together, do some talking, and as a result of this conversation the more junior ‘mentee’ gets some advice, information or tips from the more senior ‘mentor’, and ‘is developed’. However, the idea that mentoring is equal to advising, can lead us to a superficial view of what mentoring involves. Using advice as a way to solve every problem, can be based in assumptions about what the aim of mentoring is, and what the mentee wants to get out of the conversation. Take this oversimplified mentoring process for example:

  1. mentee has a problem based on a knowledge gap,

  2. mentor uses their superior knowledge to solve the problem, by giving some advice,

  3. mentee’s problem is solved because they now possess that knowledge…

But does it always work like that? Are all problems just caused by a simple knowledge gap and fixed by knowing the right answer?

Are mentoring problems always solved with the right advice?

First, let’s ask, are mentoring conversations always about problems? Engaging with mentoring is not just ‘for problems’, but can be even more effective if it’s viewed as a proactive development activity ‘for planning’. Positioning the value of mentoring as an aide to planning, prevents mentoring becoming a reactive rollercoaster of just in time problem solving. And also prevents wasted opportunities, where the mentee says at the end of the programme “I didn’t get in touch with my mentor because a problem never came up.”

Where problems do occur, think also that it’s not very empowering to have to have someone solve your problem for you. In leaping in to solve the issue, we deny the mentee the chance to develop their own problem-solving skills. We undermine their own authority to be in control of their way forward.

And say there is a particular problem the mentee wants to solve, but there isn’t a simple ‘right answer’ to the problem? What if the mentor has no prior experience of the issue? What if the mentor’s advice comes from a different set of experiences and assumptions about how the world works? What if the mentor’s knowledge is out of date, or only applies in certain contexts? Their advice in any of these situations is likely to fall short of the intended mark, and to frustrate the mentee.

Importantly what if the ‘problem’ is not a knowledge gap at all, but a confidence gap, or a motivation gap, or a permission gap or something more complex like how to improve a challenging workplace relationship. These are things that the mentor can’t just ‘hand over’ to the mentee, and so we have to think differently about how to help.