Mentoring: a formal arrangement or an informal conversation?

While formal mentoring schemes have been shown to deliver great results, quite often we can benefit greatly from those ‘informal’ mentoring conversations. Here’s my top tips on how to maximise informal mentoring opportunities:

Recognise those ‘informal’ relationships.

For me it took the death of someone I had worked with for 14 years to realise that they had been my ‘go to’ person in the early part of my career, my unofficial mentor that I had taken my professional questions and challenges to. Over catch-up lunches to review work projects we always spilled over into the personal aspects of our lives, including careers and challenges faced, offering honest, objective and challenging advice.

Cutting both ways.

A reciprocal arrangement can benefit both parties. This can work informally with peers also, and I recognise my conversations with my late friend benefited her as much as they did me, as I had strengths in areas she didn’t. She would help me as a sounding board, with questions related to my role where I benefited from an external perspective, and I helped her, drawing on my more creative approach when it came to developing her marketing plan for her business.

The current fad for ‘reverse mentoring’ plays on this reciprocity, and seeks to capitalise on filling knowledge gaps that executives may have with new technology, for example, by pairing with mentees that can pass their knowledge upwards.

In general, any mentoring within the same company is going to have benefits for both parties. The mentee may receive direct assistance, but the mentor may pick up on useful information on what’s going on ‘on the ground’ in the organisation, as well as greater commitment from colleagues and a sense of fulfilment and pride.

Look for opportunities.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, in her book ‘Lean In’ suggests that grabbing a moment after a meeting or in the hall to ask advice from a respected and busy senior person can work. It need not be any more that a casual and quick exchange. After taking any advice, it would be appropriate for any would-be mentee to follow up to offer thanks and then to use that opportunity to ask for more guidance. Without even realising it, the senior person becomes involved and interested in the junior person’s career. The word ‘mentor’ never needs to be uttered. The relationship is more than the label.

Go where there’s a real connection.

There is a place for being given a mentor, as typically happens through a formal mentoring programme. However, if seeking your own, be wary of asking a virtual stranger ‘will you be my mentor?’ The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides. If those connections don’t exist, then networking and cultivating those relationships needs to be the priority.

After a few long conversations with a potential supplier I recognised they possessed a knowledge and experience base that was useful for me, and as we had established a good rapport, it wasn’t scary to ask if they could meet with me a couple of times to have a mentoring conversation.

Use your peer network.

Sandberg also talks about how peers can mentor and sponsor one another: ‘Friends at the same stage of their careers may actually provide more current and useful counsel’. Taking time out of the working day to do things like go to lunch with a colleague provides a perfect way to give time for these discussions.

Preparation, preparation, preparation.

Whether a formal or informal conversation, preparation is key. A senior executive will respect an approach or a request for their time if the mentee has done their homework. Asking specific insightful questions of someone that has ‘been there, done that’ may yield greater results than just asking for a portion of their time to ‘pick their brains’. Your problem or needs as a mentee is not their problem, so make sure you are not asking for things you could find out on your own.


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