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Mentoring unpacked II: A ‘blended’ approach to mentoring

Welcome to the second part of the story, for which my mentor Margaret Bennett and I have collaborated to share our insights into what it’s like to work together as mentor and mentee. Looking back at six years of working together, here we share our insights into the process. We have already recounted how we first met and got started and also discussed the benefits of having a mentor in the first part of the story. Next time, in the third and final instalment we’ll be looking at mentoring when things are tough and reflecting on what we’ve learnt.

Maren and Margaret in conversation, November 2016 Image credit: Sarah Caroline Photography

This post is about how we found an effective ‘blended’ approach to mentoring, how we have worked together using technology to bridge big distances, creating safe situations to work together on some of the biggest challenges and achievements over the past six years.

One of the defining characteristic of the mentoring approach we have developed is that we are not located close to each other. We live hours apart and with busy jobs and limited funds there was never an option to meet up in person frequently. Most of our communication is via email and phone calls, and we use online collaboration tools or shared documents if we need to work on something specific together. Meeting in person has been more or less frequent depending on circumstance and also the kinds of things we were focusing on. As I was already used to working remotely with colleagues and had previously had a Line Manager also working remotely, this was in some way not a big adjustment to make, but there are specific characteristics of the way in which Margaret and I work together that made a real difference to me:

In the early days in particular my mentoring needs could feel very urgent at times: in those instances email or phone were often the most immediate way to get help or support when a crisis arose. The responsiveness that a call afforded was much more important to me than the personal presence meeting Margaret in person could have provided. It gave me more confidence to know that help was at hand should I need it and it helped us build trust more quickly.

At the same time, things were always very busy and I rarely had the opportunity to step back from my day to day responsibilities. Thus, I came to value having the chance to have a few hours to think and to spend time with Margaret more highly. I prepared for or thought about what I wanted to talk about – sometimes leaving really hard conversations or more strategic, abstract thinking for those occasions whilst dealing with more practical matters remotely. Leading an organisation the way I like to work, in a very collegiate manner, takes a lot of thinking and time with Margaret constituted valuable pockets of inspiration.

Working with a mentor also gave me a chance to see what it takes to make a blended working relationship work from a new perspective and that helped me become a better line manager for my distributed staff team in later years. It was good practice for building trust and establishing a rapport using a blended approach. Some of this thinking still informs the work my colleague Martin Hawksey and I are doing on open approaches to leading a virtual team.

I wonder, Margaret, how typical it is in your experience to take this approach and how well it works from your perspective?

Until I worked with you all my mentoring had been face to face and so it was new to me. But as we had so quickly developed a good rapport together it became very easy to talk on the phone or via email or Google docs.

I think there is a big difference though in the type of discussions we have.

When we talk on the phone there is always an immediate practical issue that we need to work on. So our phone calls are very practical and solution focused. And while they involve a lot of moral support to they are very focused.

When we use email or Google docs, we are at our most practical: I may comment on a document, article or letter or may be sharing a risk register template or business plan structure that might work for Maren.

Sometimes we just send very short messages to each other – messages of support or congratulations, celebrating success or commiserating when things don’t quite work out.

And I think the blended approach has really helped that as by using phone calls and emails to deal with current, more practical issues, we have been able to focus our face to face time on the big picture.

So that is how our work together took shape after the first meeting we described in the earlier part of the story. We put a lot of effort into building a working relationship that fit the organisation as well as each other. We adjusted the balance of working together in person or remotely depending on circumstances over time.

When I look back at the last six years, I divide my experience of mentoring into what we worked on in pivotal moments when things were going well and how we dealt with things going wrong.

For example, ahead of the biggest changes I’ve led or milestones the organisation has reached, Margaret and I spent sessions on strategy and vision, on planning for the future and on preparing for change. That element of our work I’ve come to value a lot: Margaret got me thinking ahead, planning for the long term.

Most of the people in my working life are necessarily focused on the task at hand or the current year. But doing too much myself that’s concentrated on the here and now made me less effective in my role, less able to make a plan for what’s ahead and steer in the right direction.

There’s a degree of that strategic thinking I would do with colleagues or Trustees or horizon scanning with external input, but having a mentor really prompted me to make time to think about and nurture my own vision. And at the rate things were achieved it was constantly important to do that afresh. To be more ambitious, to challenge myself rather than to rest on whatever was achieved.

Margaret describes it here:

When we meet face to face we usually have the time and the headspace to take a step back, looking further into the future and explore long term objectives. We usually spend about three hours together and that is hugely valuable. We have the time to tease out where Maren wants to be in five years time or what difference ALT should be making on the world!

We’ve always had long term goals that we come back to over many seasons and it is so great that Maren has achieved those over the six years we have worked together

To me, in whatever manner we work together, mentoring acted as a catalyst at pivotal moments.

Another important part of our work that shaped how I work and lead has been to figure out how to be myself in my role. It’s not always been about what to achieve, but also how. So for example we talked about what kind of professional image I wanted to have, what I wanted to look like, what would be acceptable to wear in certain situations and how to have fun with it! I bought a very serious, dark blue suit when I went for my job interview and during the first year or so I often found myself in situations where wearing the most formal outfits I owned felt like the only acceptable option. That’s changed over time, as my own ideas about being a leader have changed.

Margaret adds:

I think the best leaders are those that are truly authentic. When people are new to the leadership role they may feel they need to copy someone else, or follow in the footsteps of their predecessor etc. And people don’t always realise that this needs to be thought about and proactively managed. It’s a kind of brand management but the ‘brand” has to be genuine too if a leader is going to inspire trust.

There is also something about being confident in yourself, what you believe in and how you do things rather than trying to be someone else. So when Maren and I have talked about chief executive shoes that hasn’t just been a distraction from her leadership role but about building confidence in who she is and how her image can support that. And a great pair of comfortable shoes can really boost your morale!

That’s a good point to pause our story and draw this post to a close. In the next  and final post we will be looking at how we worked together through some of the toughest times and what we learnt in the process.