• Germana Barba

What The Hell Is Mentoring?



I have had mentors since long before I knew what the word meant. To my memory, the first one was the teacher of my favourite subject, Philosophy. Then it was a friend of my parents whose international career as an environmental engineer inspired me. After that, when I started engaging in local politics at the age of 16, my mentor was a social activist who had founded several associations helping disadvantaged people. Numerous friends, bosses and colleagues have acted as mentors to me since. It is widely cited that the concept of mentoring originated with the character of Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus entrusts his young son Telemachus to the care of Mentor, his companion, when he goes to fight in the Trojan War. To Telemachus Mentor was not only a guide and a counsellor, but also a friend. Indeed, mentors are all these things, and more. They are so critical to be, beside friends and family, the people we call when we need advice and support.


It's not easy to distinguish between mentoring and coaching. To me, coaching is very much what Socrates became famous for: creating a method pushing others beyond their usual assumptions so that they learn to question their own thought processes and they evolve and find answers to their own questions. Coaches are very helpful to those who feel 'lost' and are looking to understand what they want. Mentoring, on the other hand, is more about giving concrete help on a specific matter. It’s about getting things done with the help of someone with more experience. Compared to coaching, mentoring typically requires the mentee to share a much greater amount of details in relation to their professional and sometime personal situation (during sessions whose content obviously remains confidential all-lifelong).


As a career mentor, the clients I work with typically face issues that have gotten them stuck, whether for objective reasons (lack of opportunities in their current workplace) or subjective (Imposter Syndrome is one of the most common). I started mentoring others professionally because I realized that in my own career and in the informal mentoring role I have played with many people before, I can successfully apply my primary expertise -- Public Affairs -- to Career Development. The foundational approach I follow is that in order to advance whichever career goal, one needs to 1) understand the dynamics in the “political” context of a given organization (where one already works or aspire to work) and 2) put in place a smart campaign that promotes one’s merits, puts them in a visible position, and gathers support from other people that can have a positive influence while minimizing opposition.


A category of clients that particularly interests me is those who feel they can do more but somehow have not yet succeeded in expressing their full potential. This can be due to obstacles such as unsupportive bosses or excessive workload or other external causes but, in my experience, most of the time it depends on insufficient self confidence in one’s own capabilities. The phenomenon of Imposter Syndrome is by now widely known -- particularly among mid-management female professionals -- as being a career blocker and a cause of a continued sense of inadequacy and powerlessness. We know from political sciences that power and influence can be innate/inherited but can also be built, even from scratch. Every one of us in fact has a “power bucket", but we may never activate it without appropriate actions. And the first step is always to realize such power.


Another characteristic of mentoring is its practical approach. It takes more to grow in your career than telling your boss that you want to grow in your career. It takes a series of smart moves -- some of which are small, but sustained -- to persuade the organization that you deserve to be given the challenge you aspire to. Persuasion is central to Public Affairs as is to Career Development because organizations are social entities where, despite stated intentions and official narratives, the role of informal networks and personal opinions (or biases) still plays a significant role. Engaging stakeholders inside and outside the workplace can greatly impact on our career. Understanding the context in which the people who are called to make the decision operate is key. Promotions and other similar decisions are rarely the result of one factor only (e.g. merit) and assessing each and every of these elements is key to success.


Professional mentors are personally invested in achieving their mentee’s goals. As part of their “mission”, they share their advice, expertise, and also their own network with the mentee when that can contribute to the mentee’s achievements. While the mentee is ultimately free to do what they think is best, I believe in pushing them to do a specific thing if I think that that’s going to work. Nobody likes to be told what to do but the reality is that in order to change things we likely need to do things in a different way. Since a mentor-mentee relationship is probably the closest thing to a friendship that can occur in a professional context, the trust that develops overtime allows the mentor to say the “hard truths” at the right time.


Sometimes I hear the view that mentoring should be free of charge to be “authentic”. And most of us have friends and acquaintances that will give us precious, free advice. A professional career mentor however invests a significant chunk of her/his time analyzing the mentee’s situation and helping them build a specific plan that will likely achieve the goals set at the beginning of the program (or new goals, if they evolve throughout the program). From improving one’s CV and application techniques, to revising the mentee’s LinkedIn profile or refining the narrative around themselves, these are all parts of what a mentor's support really means. And that is the difference between an informal and a formal mentor.


Ultimately, our ability to achieve our careers goals very much depends on developing the confidence in our abilities and making the most of the help we can get. Luck is always a factor of success. But it is out of our control and we must direct our efforts towards what can be actioned upon. Mentoring helps doing exactly that.

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