Setting direction in a mentoring relationship

Setting DirectionIt is really critical to have clear focus in a mentoring relationship. Otherwise, it will simply turn into a series of nice conversations, with no real learning or development. In developmental mentoring, setting direction is the mentee’s responsibility with the support and encouragement of their mentor. Generally, mentees have an idea of what they would like to work on, but the mentor needs to provide support to develop this further.

Preparation before the relationship begins

The mentee may have already started to think about what they would like to achieve from the relationship and it is great to encourage this reflection in advance of their first meeting with their mentor.

Short of time? Watch the video Setting Direction in 60 seconds 🎬

Some questions which may be useful for mentees to consider in setting direction:

  • What do you value in life?
  • What aspects of your developmental plan may be relevant to bring into the mentoring relationship also?
  • In your life at the moment, what are you avoiding?
  • What are your current developmental challenges in your current role?
  • What transitions are you moving through at this time that you would welcome support with?

When is the best time for setting direction?

The initial mentoring meeting is often just a ‘chemistry’ meeting to see if the mentor and mentee want to work together. It is about building rapport and becoming relaxed and responsive in their relationship.

Short of time? Watch the video Building Rapport in 60 seconds 🎬

The mentoring pair will then discuss and agree how they want to work together and set any boundaries and ground rules for their relationship. Therefore, it is often the second or third meeting before the mentee and mentor really get down to setting direction and discuss relationship purpose, focus and direction.

Should goals be SMART?

SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. They tend to be popular as they clearly define the focus of learning, reduce any ambiguity, provide very clear measures of success and a timescale for the goal.

Smart GoalsSome mentees are very comfortable formulating SMART goals, to others this is anathema. Mentors should discuss with their mentee how defined or not, they would like their direction to be. They can point out the advantages of working with SMART goals, but also be cognisant of how this might turn the mentee off if they want a more fluid approach to their end destination. Whatever is decided, ensure the relationship focus can be articulated in such a way that both mentor and mentee have clarity, there is a way quantitative or qualitative change can be demonstrated or measured and that whatever has been agreed, will stretch the mentee in some way and enhance their personal development.

Are the mentee’s objectives, goals or developmental themes appropriate?

The mentor and mentee may like to review whether the mentee’s focus is appropriate once they have been through the process of setting direction:

  • What will achieving this objective or goal do for the mentee personally? (reputation, promotion opportunities, job satisfaction, income, learning etc)
  • What will it do for their team?
  • What will it do for the organisation?
  • How much will achieving this objective or goal matter in a year’s time?
  • How important is it compared to other objectives or goals they might set?
  • Is it really their objective or goal, or one imposed on them?

In my experience, some initial challenge saves time later as it can prevent the mentoring pair wasting time working on the wrong topics and themes.

What sort of topics do mentee’s bring into the mentoring conversation?

Here are a few examples, but developmental mentoring is holistic and a mentee may want to discuss all sorts of areas of their life. It is important as part of the boundary setting between mentors and mentees that more sensitive or personal topics are reviewed to see if they are appropriate to include. Both mentor and mentee must be comfortable with discussing the topics agreed for their relationship:

  • Career planning and transition
  • Developing self-awareness and self-confidence
  • Challenge to thinking, perspective and assumptions
  • Leading or living through change and transition
  • Developing their tacit knowledge
  • Managing work life balance
  • Becoming more or less commercially focussed
  • Returning to work after a break
  • Developing EQ (Emotional Intelligence) or other skills, competencies or behaviours
  • Increasing visibility/reputation and personal brand building
  • New to the organisation
  • Conflicts at work or improving relationships
  • Leadership development and working with their team
  • Delegation
  • Stress management
  • Having a safe space to review their current situation in life.

How many goals/objectives should the mentee have?

GoalsWhen setting direction, don’t agree to work on more than 2/3 goals at any one time as the human brain can only focus effectively on a few things at once. Mentors should support their mentees to prioritise the topics they choose if they have a long shopping list of ideas. What will make the greatest impact on their life? This should be what they choose first.

Review the mentee’s direction regularly

The mentee’s life and priorities may change direction during the relationship or they may want to bring in other areas to work on. So there needs to be a constant review and adjustment of the topic(s) during the relationship.

Reviews can take place as both part of the meeting check out process and as the mentoring pair review where they are in the life cycle. Also, as major events/life changes occur for the mentee during the relationship.

In these times of constant change, many mentors recommend 90-day sprints with their mentees. Working on short, smaller chunks of change/direction that can hopefully be completed by the mentee before their situation changes, yet again!

Check regularly together:

  • Are you working with clear direction?
  • Do you have specific objectives/goals? Or more general themes?
  • Who is in the driving seat in the relationship? Ensure the mentor is not taking over the agenda with their own ideas!

Are objectives/goals always relevant when setting direction?

Experienced mentors will be very comfortable working with whatever issues the mentee brings to them on the day. However, we find in formal mentoring programmes, encouraging the mentee to have some general direction for the relationship provides it with purpose, energy and greater longevity. Relationships that tend to just focus on the current issues of the mentee have less need for mentor support. This is not to say the relationships are any less valuable, but they may be shorter, or simply meet less regularly.

Having goals or objectives can support relationship momentum and provide a benchmark for progress and provide data for quantitative and qualitative progress and evaluation.

I describe mentoring as: ‘A conversation with a purpose’. Having clear focus of some kind will give the relationship vitality, more richness and a deeper level of learning. Make sure you put sufficient emphasis on setting direction! We’re always happy to talk mentoring, so please get in touch to discuss how we might help you.

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About Lis Merrick

Lis Merrick is Managing Director of Coach Mentoring Limited, the ISMCP Accreditation Chair (European Mentoring and Coaching Council International Standards for Mentoring and Coaching Programmes), a Visiting Fellow of the Coaching and Mentoring Research Unit at Sheffield Business School and she was the EMCC (European Mentoring and Coaching Council) UK President from 2015 to 2018.

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