Graduates leave college with plenty of knowledge but, in most cases, not a huge amount of practical work experience. Even where college courses have included a work placement, adjusting to a full-time job takes time.
This is where mentorship can be invaluable. I was one of a handful of journalists lucky enough to get my start under the late, great Séan Flynn, former education editor of this newspaper. Séan never formally mentored any of us within a structured programme, but he took on younger journalists, threw challenges at us, advised us on how to approach a story and corrected us on our mistakes. It was the best, most practical education in journalism, and we all learned a huge amount from this deeply intelligent, kind and wickedly fun man.
I always appreciated what Séan did and how he never pulled up the ladder behind him.
As I gained more experience in journalism myself, I remembered how he had helped me and decided I would informally mentor younger freelance journalists myself. I usually take on one at a time, over a number of years, supporting them with contacts, advice and whatever knowledge I can offer.
Increasingly, mentorship has become more formalised. But, however it is structured, both mentors and mentees can benefit from the process.
“Mentorship is a two-way conversation,” says Sinéad Brady, career psychologist.
“Typically, one person has more experience, but they are both willing to support and engage with each other. When someone starts in the workplace, they may not have an understanding of the layers of complexity in an organisation. Mentorship can help here, and it can also provide an understanding of the wider industry. Mentees can sense check with their mentor, and it’s about gaining insight if they’re struggling with some aspect of their role.”
Bastian Buch is co-CEO of the Mentoring Club, a German-based not-for-profit organisation that connects mentors and mentees across 150 countries, including Ireland.
“This is a side project for me and my co-CEO, Jessica Dewald, and it started as a lockdown project,” Buch says.
“I had a mentor who took a lot of time with me and his support was more important than university. Now, as a manager of people in my day job, I use a supportive attitude to lead and help others grow, so this project made sense.”
Buch says that everyone can benefit from mentoring.
“It is not so much about specific skills or situations; instead, it’s about supporting someone, sharing experiences, reflecting and listening on life or career choices. In most cases, the mentor is more experienced or senior, but this is not a must, as younger people can make great mentors for seniors.
“It is always good to have a companion for your growth, and is especially helpful in early career and during changes.
“At the Mentoring Club, mentees choose mentors and, at the moment, mentors have no influence on who will be their mentees. But we see a lot of senior women who help young women leaders, or people supporting black or minority community mentees. Mentoring is donating time, and [just as] people choose the right cause for their money to support, they should be able to do so with their time.”
A mentee may have a mentor in the workplace and one outside the workplace.
“It should be someone with the time, capacity and interest to offer support, and [the relationship] should resonate on a personal level,” says Buch.
How can somebody find the right mentor for their workplace and career?
“Ideally a mentor and mentee would have an ongoing relationship over months and years,” says Brady.
“But to ensure that you trust each other, one idea is to ask someone for support over the next eight weeks, meeting perhaps every fortnight for a coffee. This way, it is like a pilot and, if it works well for both parties, they can continue if they wish; if not, thank each other at the end and leave it there.”
Both Brady and Buch say that there are benefits for mentors as well as mentees.
“Being a mentor is different for everyone, but it does sharpen your skills, provide an insight into different aspects of the organisation that you may not have understood or been as close to,” Brady says. “And as the culture of an organisation can often be on repeat, it widens your perspective to ensure that you see things through a different lens.”
Gemma O’Connor: How mentoring has helped me
Since joining Peninsula I’ve worked in several different roles, some of which I would never have succeeded at without the guidance and support of my mentor, Moira Grassick.
Moira worked with me to identify my strengths. She involves me in projects to broaden my skill set and give exposure to other areas of the business, some of which are completely out of my comfort zone.
Knowing that I have her support and it’s okay to make a mistake gives me the confidence I need to grow. Moira is always open and honest when having difficult conversations with me and is not afraid to share her own experiences. This is something I try to replicate with my own teams; I believe it makes me a better manager.
Some companies have formal mentoring programmes in place, but in my experience, it’s generally line managers who take on the role of mentor. This is often done on an informal day-to-day basis, sometimes without them even realising it. Formal mentoring can be implemented to ensure people are ready to step into leadership or business critical roles.
I see mentoring as coaching and guiding an individual to support their personal development and growth while giving constructive advice based on your experience. Mentoring helps employees gain practical insight from someone with more experience, as well as the opportunity to discuss career goals, challenges and opportunities with someone they trust. A mentor can give different perspectives, challenge you to be accountable, think about the overall picture rather than just an individual part, and be comfortable receiving critical feedback. I have seen that through coaching and knowledge sharing, my team members are more confident and clearer on what they want for their careers and are better prepared to take the next step or opportunity when it arises.
If you’re looking for a mentor, the first step is to find someone who has expertise in your field. Think about what you are looking to get out of the mentee-ship. If you are looking to grow within your current role and expand your network within your sector, you want your mentor to have experience within the sector and, ideally, within your role. If you’re looking to gain experience in different areas, then seek out people with the relevant experience and skills to help you grow and develop.
Everyone can benefit from mentoring, but they must be willing to engage and communicate. I have realised that when an employee is learning, has a clear career pathway and sees that you want them to succeed they are an engaged, happy, productive employee.
In March, we held a global Super Coach awards, recognising those who have gone above and beyond to mentor and coach their teams. The winning Super Coach won £10,000. Following the awards, the top 10 finalists have formed a group to lead on mentorship strategy across the group, identifying ways to develop and grow our employees, supporting them to thrive within their roles and careers.
- Gemma O’Connor, Head of Service at Peninsula Ireland