Principles of mentoring
Only if an individual is internally ready to accept guidance can a mentor be useful. Many times people switch off their receptivity because of past successes.
V. K. Madhav Mohan
Mentoring has been widely discussed and implemented in the Indian corporate context in recent times. So much so that it is in danger of becoming a fad amongst HR specialists. Virtually every conversation on human resources revolves around the need to mentor people to improve their performance and behaviour. Many companies have rolled out mentoring programmes with all kinds of bells and whistles. Consulting companies sell their own proprietary brand of mentoring programmes replete with specific methodologies, presentations, databases and psychometrics.
It is therefore important to cut through the clutter and understand the principles underlying the concept of mentoring.
Origins in Greek Mythology
It is commonly accepted that the practice of mentoring originated from ancient Greek mythology when Odysseus entrusted his son Telemachus into the tutelage of his friend Mentor. Odysseus left to fight the Trojan War, secure in the knowledge that Mentor would school his son and also protect his palace. The word “mentor” was first used in a French book authored by Francois Fenelon and published in 1699; the main protagonist in the book is a character named Mentor.
Field of Dharma: Kurukshetra
Be that as it may, we in India can take pride in the fact that our own hoary heritage spawned the concept of mentoring in a far more substantive form many thousands of years preceding the western constructs of mentoring. The Vedas are the fountain of all knowledge and the Rishis are without doubt more complete teacher — guides than any mentor can be. But it is on the battlefield of Kurukshetra that the most sublime and consummate mentoring practice unfolded some 5000 years ago when Krishna inspired and exhorted Arjuna to do his duty.
If we can mine the treasury of Indian spiritual knowledge and heritage we can obtain gems of unparalleled utility and beauty! The Guru-Shisya parampara is the base on which our own approach to mentoring can and must rest. That would certainly prove to be a bulwark against the stresses and threats that the online networked world of the 21st century generates. While the Western approach to mentoring has gained acceptance and no doubt, plenty of success, I would like to suggest a few principles more suited to our own socio-cultural, historical and spiritual ethos.
Deeply Personal Engagement
Firstly, mentoring is a deeply personal engagement. Helping a person attain his potential is indeed a great privilege. It is all about trust and faith both of which can hardly be quantified or measured. Since it’s a very personal engagement between two people the process is mentor-specific.
In other words, it’s difficult to transfer the mentoring responsibility to an Associate Mentor; that’s because the person who sought the mentor’s help did so on the basis of his relationship with the mentor and has everything to do with the mentor’s own knowledge, experience, skills, insights and personal characteristics.
Secondly, mentoring is unlimited in subject or scope. Companies often view mentoring as a means to enhance performance or “promotability”. But mentoring at its core is really helping a person attain his or her full potential as a human being. Performance in the workplace is only a small subset of the person as an integrated human being with infinite potential. So mentoring encompasses an unlimited canvass that includes not only the development of skills and knowledge but also emotional and spiritual growth. Even more fundamentally, the mentor assists the person in discovering his or her personal direction.
Mentoring is relevant, necessary and effective only if the people concerned (mentor and person mentored) have a passionate commitment to personal development. The teacher can only transfer knowledge if the student thirsts for knowledge. Foisting a mentor on a person merely because mentoring is a corporate initiative is guaranteed to fail.
As it is said in Indian spiritual lore, the guru appears when the aspirant is ready. While a mentor in the modern context need not be a guru, it is inevitable for shades of the guru to manifest in the relationship.
Only if an individual is internally ready to accept guidance can a mentor be useful. Many times people switch off their receptivity because of past successes; in such cases personal humility is absent and an egoistic “I know it all” cynicism sets in. The sad truth is that only a personal trauma can open such people to mentoring.
The CEO doubling as a mentor for people within her organisation is fraught with difficulties. That is because the CEO’s position imbues her with a surfeit of positional power. Even if the person being mentored by the CEO is not her direct reportee, the fact remains that complete organisational power resides in the CEO. So a residue of fear enters the admixture of respect and familiarity in the relationship. It will therefore need extraordinary care for the relationship to blossom and bear fruit.
The ideal mentoring programme is when the mentor does not possess position or hierarchy-derived power. Rather, just as the central bank exercises moral suasion to regulate the banking sector, the mentor’s moral authority is the best way to encourage personal growth. It is important to understand that “moral authority” in this context refers to the mentor’s unimpeachable personal credibility rather than moral policing. This prevents any vested interest from creeping into the mentoring process and allows the person to grow as a human being; this is an order of magnitude different from growth just within the organisational context.
If these principles are incorporated into the mentoring programme, the process will encourage sharing, listening, non-judgmental acceptance, structured introspection and deep thought all of which result in dramatic changes in personal behaviour, action and, of course, results. The synergy so unleashed will be nothing short of spectacular!