Advantages and disadvantages of formal mentoring

by Katherine O’Donnell

Katherine O’Donnell, Scripture Engagement Consultant, SIL Tanzania

I recently completed the StrengthsFinder from Gallup and one of my strengths turned out to be ‘Developer’. This came as no surprise to people who know me well, who know what a buzz I get from teaching and seeing people grow. As the Coordinator of the Literacy & Scripture Engagement Department in Mbeya, Tanzania, you probably won’t be surprised to also hear that I have been informally mentoring my Tanzanian colleagues over the years, without even realising that what I was doing could be called ‘mentoring’. But now we have heard about ‘formal’ mentoring and the question is, how is this different from what I was doing before, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of this formal mentoring?

Firstly, how is it different? I see a key difference as being the final goal. As I informally mentored my colleagues, my goal was simply to see them grow and develop in their job and in their relationship with God and I harboured hopes of them taking on more leadership responsibilities. Good goals, but they were mostly goals in my own head. Formal mentoring, on the other hand, involves the mentor and mentee agreeing on goals and time-frames and working towards specific growth in professional capacity (e.g. to becoming a specialist or consultant or leader), for the benefit of the organisation. Competency Based Certification (or the older Consultant Growth Plans) may help guide the mentor and mentee in setting the goals and making sure that the necessary competencies are ticked off for growth. 

I have now entered into a formal mentoring relationship with one of my colleagues, who we specifically want to see becoming a Scripture Engagement specialist and Department Coordinator. I am also formally mentoring someone in another entity towards becoming an SE Consultant. So are there any advantages to this formal mentoring?

Advantages of formal mentoring

While my experience is limited, here are some advantages that I feel are true for formal mentoring:

  • Building capacity in the entity and the leadership knows about it – formal mentoring agreements are done with the knowledge of supervisors and domain team leaders, so it goes beyond the local office to impacting branch-wide strategy. 
  • Intentionality with clear time-bound goals and planned meetings – informal mentoring can just drift along, but by formalising it you make sure things happen.
  • Achievement and celebration – it’s satisfying to tick things off a formal list that you have agreed on! Together you can celebrate the progress.
  • New or closer relationships – a mentor has the joy of getting to know the mentee in a deeper way than they might otherwise have done and of getting to know new people if they get involved in mentoring people outside of their entity.
  • Continuity – informal mentoring usually stops if the mentor leaves or changes role, but hopefully formal mentoring would continue as it is not necessary for the mentor to be on location or, if they really can’t continue, another mentor should be found because this is for more than personal development, it is for the benefit of the whole entity.

Disadvantages of formal mentoring

There are some down sides to it too, partly dependent on your personality or situation as a mentor:

  • Feels like a burden – as soon as you make something ‘formal’ it can feel like a big responsibility that you don’t have time for. It certainly is more of a time commitment, but I think it also has the potential for clearer and better results.
  • More administration – there is more admin involved in making sure mentoring is being coordinated across an entity and followed up.
  • Long-term commitment in the midst of an uncertain future – I found it hard to enter into a two-year mentoring agreement when our work permit situation is so uncertain. It leaves me feeling worried that I won’t be able to fulfill my commitment to the mentee. (Maybe this is because another of my Gallup Strengths is ‘Responsibility’!)
  • Anxiety – it increases my anxiety levels – will I be able to help this person grow in the way that their supervisor / entity leadership is hoping?!
  • Partiality – does it look like I am showing partiality to one colleague by only being in a formal mentoring agreement with one of them? When informally mentoring I could mentor them all together and it didn’t matter if some weren’t making as much progress because there were no formal goals. That’s different now.

Just yesterday I met with one of my mentees, and it was encouraging to see him moving forward in the areas we had discussed and taking the lead in conversation, so despite the potential challenges of formal mentoring, I think it’s worth giving it a go!

What is your experience? And how could we overcome some of the perceived challenges of formal mentoring? Share your thoughts by leaving a reply below.

What kind of a mentor do you need?

by Eszter Ernst-Kurdi

Eszter Ernst-Kurdi, Training Coordinator, SIL Francophone Africa

In 2017 I conducted small-scale research with the participation of 41 students coming from 17 African countries; all involved in language development work with different organisations. 

Two of the questions I asked in focus group discussions were:

  • What kind of support do you need the most in your work? 
  • What would that support look like?

These two wordcloud images show the responses that were given by the English-speaking and the French-speaking groups:

Needs expressed by the Anglophone groups
Needs expressed by the Francophone groups

As you can see, the top felt need was a mentor in both groups. But what did the participants have in mind when they referred to the support they needed the most as a mentor?

When asked to describe what this support would look like, the participants expressed the need for a mentor who:

  • Understands their work and context 
  • Listens well
  • Gives advice and feedback (both positive and negative)
  • Helps to clarify what is expected of the mentee in their job within the organisation
  • Explains the vision, the values and the unspoken rules of the organisation
  • Models good leadership and management
  • Does not inquire only about the mentee’s work but also shows interest in the mentee’s personal and spiritual development and family life (holistic approach)
  • Develops a genuine relationship and keeps in touch
  • Encourages the mentee
  • Helps the mentee navigate conflict situations and cross-cultural issues.

Some quotes from the focus group discussions:

  • “A mentor is someone who is close to me and can encourage me.”
  • “A mentor is someone older and experienced who can give me advice. In my culture we ask the elders for guidance to see whether we are on the right track.” 
  • “I need encouragement and advice from others who are more mature.” 
  • “I would appreciate it if someone could give me intentional support to become a consultant.” 
  • “Someone who understands the challenges I face at work and encourages me.”
  • “To have someone who knows what I am working on and who prays for me.”
  • “I would like to have someone to sit down with and find a solution together to a problem.”

The findings suggest that mentoring is very much needed among African colleagues who work in language development. It seems that a robust and effective mentoring program could help people feel more at home and at ease in their organisations because they would have someone who could show them the ropes and answer their questions in a safe relationship. In many of these cultures that operate with high power distance, asking questions from one’s supervisor is not a straight-forward matter. Strong mentoring relationships will help orient people both in their jobs and in the culture and values of their organization. This is particularly important in multicultural organizations.

The responses also indicate that for a mentoring relationship to be effective in these contexts, it needs to have a genuine and deeply relational component that includes: giving advice, commitment to a long-term relationship and showing care in practical ways.

What expectations do mentees have in your context? Tell us by leaving a reply below.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

At sea

by Michael Jemphrey

Michael Jemphrey, Translation & Anthropology Consultant, SIL Francophone Africa

With two friends at university I bought a small wooden yacht thinking it would be so fun to sail round the coastline of Ireland. We bought a book about sailing and studied it a bit, looked at the pictures and got on top of the theory. We were ready to sail! On our maiden voyage we launched the boat into the Irish Sea and took off with great excitement. Minutes later we were panicking, there was water gushing up through the centerboard, the wind was blowing us off course, we were tugging at this rope and that rope to try and get the sails under control. Somehow, I can’t quite remember how, we ended back on land, after a frantic first sail of less than 15 minutes!

In our youthful enthusiasm we hadn’t realized that we needed a mentor, someone with a bit more experience, who had sailed before, to show us the ropes. Sailing is complicated – with lots of factors to take into account: wind tide, sails, other boats. Knowing the theory and putting it into practice are not the same.

Our work in SIL is also complex and increasingly so: plenty of theories and new methods on linguistics, translation, literacy, Scripture engagement, multiple multicultural partners and complex regulations to navigate. There is lots of information out there, but without a mentor we can feel all at sea. It is not just academic disciplines where mentors are needed. In a recent presentation on the launch of the Robust Mentoring initiative in Africa, directors were all saying we need mentors for our colleagues working in finance, human resources, project funding, administration.

A mentor can be so encouraging! Our leadership has determined that mentoring is so vital for our professional growth and for the robust health of our organization as we seek to serve others that it should be part of our DNA.

But there are so many questions:

  • How to find a good mentor?
  • How to be a good mentor?
  • How to find the time?
  • How to start a mentoring relationship?
  • How to finish?
  • How to navigate mentoring cross-culturally?
  • How to organize and track a mentoring program so that people don’t fall through the cracks?

This website is one way we will address these questions and challenges together, learning from one another. We will seek to use the website to 1) gather useful resources on mentoring in one place, 2) publish a short blog post several times a year to encourage interaction, 3) facilitate discussion of questions and cross-pollination of ideas.

What metaphor comes to your mind when you think of mentoring? Leave a comment below.

Welcome! / Bienvenue!

We hope that you find our website helpful. It is designed to be a place where you can find resources and share about your experiences in order to learn more about formal mentoring for sustainable development in cross-cultural settings. We trust that this blog will inspire you to invest in formal mentoring in your organisation by intentionally helping your colleagues in their professional and personal development.

Nous espérons que vous trouverez notre site web utile. Il est conçu pour être un lieu où vous cherchez des ressources et partagez vos expériences afin d’en savoir plus sur le mentorat formel pour le développement durable dans des contextes interculturels. Nous espérons que ce blog vous incitera à investir dans le mentorat formel au sein de votre organisation en aidant intentionnellement vos collègues dans leur développement professionnel et personnel.