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What do mentors want to know?

jhThere is a widespread mistaken belief that mentoring is simply a kind of ‘on-the-job training’, says John Arthurs*

In the Civil Service they used to call it “Sitting with Nellie”, which meant learning from someone who had more experience.  If you have ever been in this situation, you will know that “Nellie” needs not only experience but also something more.  However, if you do have that additional knowledge and skill, then mentoring can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your whole career.

Over the last two years The Geological Society has delivered a programme of training workshops specifically for geoscience mentors.  All participants were senior geoscientists, mainly those mentoring younger professionals through chartership.  Before each workshop they filled in a questionnaire, which asked: “With what ideas, information &/or new skills would you like to leave this workshop?”   

Wish list

The resulting ‘wish list’ of 251 bits of learning, information and skill provides a sample of problems that experienced geoscience mentors would most like to solve.  Apart from a number of questions about chartership itself (8%), the overwhelming majority wanted to find out about interpersonal mentoring skills, processes and structure (92%).

All in our sample are very experienced and well-qualified applied geoscientists.  The average length of professional practice is 21.1 years (range: 8 to 46 years).  The average number of qualifications is 3.4 each - most having a masters’ degree and another specialist qualification. The gender balance is 25.9% female to 74.1% male.  About 89% are in civil engineering, hydrogeological and environmental organisations, while the remaining 11% are in oil and minerals.

Skills deficit

Just over a third (36%) want some generic guidance, such as, “... awareness of techniques to assist individuals in meeting their full potential”, “... a clearer understanding of the differences between mentoring and coaching”, and, “Where is the line (if any) between technical and personal mentoring?”     About 15% want to know about process and structure, “...a strategy for mentoring, including how to prepare for meetings”

Over 40% want to remedy skill deficits.  Among these confidence is the major issue for 8.0%.  One person, with a hint of desperation, asks: “What level of responsibility do I have to my ‘mentee’?”, and another reflects, “... worried I didn’t know what I was doing.”    Yet another, representing 7.2%, remarks: “I find it difficult to discuss challenging behaviours and issues”.  Nearly 6.0% worry about how to motivate people who are resistant to chartership.  Other commonly desired skills are managing the mentoring relationship and mentees’ expectations (6.8 %) and managing time in an already busy schedule (6.4%).  A relatively small number of people (5.9%) realise that the core coaching skills of questioning and listening lie at the heart of mentoring and want to know more.

High anxiety

Expressions of anxiety and frustration run through the responses.  It is abundantly clear that the great majority of these very experienced and otherwise successful geoscientists have found themselves in a mentoring role while feeling that they do not fully understand how to mentor effectively.

Interactive training and discussion can provide the answers that will make mentoring the richly rewarding experience it should be.   The Geological Society workshops produced satisfaction scores in anonymous exit questionnaires of between 94% and 100%.   If you have questions about mentoring, you would be most welcome at one of our workshops.

* To contact John Arthurs E: