The Many Facets of the Mentoring Experience

by Dr. Chris Veltsos, CISSP, member of (ISC)² Advisory Council of North America

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear or read about the benefits of mentoring. Can a good mentoring experience fix what ails organizations today? I’m not a mentoring guru so I can’t answer that particular question, but what dawned on me is how many people seem to think of mentoring as a narrowly defined relationship where the mentor gives — time and advice — and the mentee receives that information. While the relationship has value, in this article, I wanted to share other forms of mentoring, what I call other types of mentoring experiences, as they do also provide benefits to those outside the narrowly defined mentor-mentee relationship.

Does Traditional Mentoring Have Value? Yes!

Top executives know the value of mentoring, as many are where they are today having directly benefited from multiple rounds of mentoring. Managers also know that mentoring can help a new recruit bloom into a fully productive employee instead of being like a tourist bee — buzzing around for a while, then moving on to the next destination. Employees also appreciate the special attention and valuable benefits that they get through mentoring: caring, open, and honest feedback from someone who isn’t their supervisor.

When thinking about mentoring a junior employee, it’s easy to see how that can also be quite a rewarding experience for both the mentor and the mentee. After all each of us at some point found ourselves at the bottom of an organization or as the newest member of the organization, and we all wish that we had received advice and input from someone more senior to us. There would have been a lot fewer bumps in the road and a lot less stress. 

Yes, mentoring is all these things, and more. Mentoring is a multi-dimensional exchange between two or more people. The mentoring experience — and we’ll get to why I call it that in a minute — isn’t just beneficial for the person being mentored. It can also change the person who is doing the mentoring.

Mentoring Up? Yes, That’s a Thing!

The first time I heard that concept, it was referred to as a “reverse mentor.” The speaker at a conference touted the benefits of senior leaders getting a reverse mentor — picked from the ranks of their junior employees — to get a stronger grasp of cutting-edge topics and trends. Such a mentoring experience helps the senior leader understand new technologies and also test their thinking to ensure it resonates with a workforce that — let’s face it — can be dramatically different than the rest of the senior leader’s peers. The junior employee picked for such a reverse mentoring task would also benefit immensely from such an experience. They would be put in a role of providing advice and feedback to someone much higher up than they and would be asked to consider issues in a new light, in a much broader context, like the view from 30,000 feet.

Mentoring Across and Beyond

But beyond the traditional vertical lines of mentoring lies another realm of possibility, when the people that take part in the mentoring relationship aren’t subject to traditional superior/inferior lines of connections. They are mentoring across to peers that are also beyond their organization. When professionals operating at somewhat similar levels — for example both being used to operating from 15,000 to 30,000 feet — enter into a mentoring relationship, it becomes much harder to identify who is the mentor and who is the mentee. Instead, much like a seesaw, the partners take turn mentoring each other. They amplify each other’s abilities, providing safe and effective feedback, helping the other see through roadblocks and tough issues. As I write these words, I realize that I currently have mentoring experiences with four different people. We communicate regularly, every week or two, sometimes more often when one of us needs it.

Mentors vs. Friends

Some of you might argue that what I described is more of a friendship than a mentoring relationship. In some cases, the people in a mentoring relationship are friends — were friends already or became friends while being peer mentors. The way I would have somebody think of the difference is to ask whether the topics of conversation are strictly professional — both of you are in the cybersecurity field and your exchanges are primarily about professional development, whether technical or non-technical. If instead you spend a non-trivial amount of time discussing other topics, well outside of your respective domains of expertise, such as family, travel, life events, etc., then you are probably also friends in addition to being peer mentors. As one of my peer mentors shared with me, people in a mentoring relationship can be all three: a mentor, a mentee and a friend.

What to Look for in a Peer Mentor? Some Things to Consider

A peer mentoring relationship takes time to develop. By definition, it isn’t bound by the same border of the organization, nor is there an inherent power differential (aka the superior/inferior angle). Why two people decide to nurture a peer mentoring relationship is something worth discussing and doing so openly. What are you looking for? What do you bring to the table? Why are you doing this? How do I know what I share with you will be treated safely? How do I know that I can trust you to share thoughts, ideas, words that make me vulnerable? Peer mentors should reflect on their own current level of EQ — Emotional Quotient — and that of their peer. Empathy can go a long way to understanding underlying conditions or emotions and help diffuse issues and disagreements when they arise.

Mentoring Relationships Take Time to Develop, So Start Today

Good things in life take time. A peer mentoring relationship cannot happen by will or by force. It is something that grows over time, as the peers take turns mentoring each other and trust develops. Those looking for mentors should let their network know, and communicate what they’re looking for in the mentoring relationship. Those of you that have years — or even decades — of experience should inform your network if you have room for one more.

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