OPINION9 October 2020

Listen and never preach

Opinion UK

Listen, draw on your career experience, but never preach. Mark Speed shares his advice for those considering becoming a mentor. 

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Some are lucky to have had a mentor that comes about informally or naturally (I certainly benefited from a mentor in the 1990s), while others may have never felt a need for one.

However, others need some guidance outside of their workplace but until the MRS mentoring scheme, may never have had the opportunity. The success of the scheme since it was piloted in 2016 shows there is clearly a strong demand for mentoring within the research sector, with a growing team of mentors.

I am currently in my third year of mentoring, having worked with three mentees. While mentees will have a range of reasons for signing up, from the mentoring side I wanted to get involved for a number of reasons:

  • The often-stated reason of wanting to give something back – both to the MRS and the research sector – platitudes but true
  • As with any sort of coaching role, the learnings go both ways for both mentor and mentee, and I have certainly benefited
  • As a researcher I have an innate interest in what makes people tick and what motivates them
  • Last but not least, the desire to genuinely help someone by drawing on my three decades working in three research agencies of varying size and then setting up my own small consultancy – I have been around the block a few times.

What does it involve?

So, what does mentoring entail? This will obviously vary depending on the needs of the mentee, as my three very different mentees demonstrated. One wanted to develop their confidence as they did more presentations and progressed their career and reporting responsibilities, especially as English was not their first language. Another was relatively early on in their career and wanted help to decide whether the ‘grass is really greener on the other side’ – should they change employers? The other was a highly experienced researcher reassessing their career after a takeover by a larger agency.

However, there are some broad rules that should apply to all mentoring relationships:

  • Listen to what the mentee wants to get out of the experience from the outset – and from that design and agree a plan (with an acknowledgement things may change over the course of the mentoring) with timescales (mentoring is typically a one year process but can be longer or shorter).  
  • Remember it is a two-way relationship and it is coaching not instructing – listen, listen and listen, and never preach
  • Draw on your own life and career experience – but if you don’t have an answer, don’t bluff it and, if necessary, point them towards someone that might know better
  • Don’t over-promise what can be achieved, and if the relationship does not click early on, consider suggesting a parting of the ways for the benefit of both (the MRS can reassign mentors and mentees)
  • Confidentiality is key – this is not something to be discussed with others and never with anyone who knows them or their employer or work colleagues
  • Try to have an initial face-to-face meeting early on (obviously this has not necessarily been possible this year, but a video meet at least is recommended)
  • Try to keep in touch regularly, rather than long gaps between contact.

Mentoring has arguably never been more necessary given the state of the world generally and the research sector specifically. The way we all work has been changing over the last few years with technology enabling more remote working and life-work balance becoming ever more important. 

This has, of course, now become ever more salient with the rapid rise in working from home given the pandemic. None of us know where the world will go in terms of work practices and career paths over the next few years, but arguably more will feel isolated and the need for support will not go away. Therefore, it is likely that the demand for independent mentoring will become more prevalent for those working in the research sector and indeed in many service sectors.

Mark Speed is a management consultant at xSpeediency

For more information on mentoring, visit the MRS website.