OPINION28 September 2020

Setting a plan

Opinion People

In the latest of a new series focused on mentoring, MRS mentor Andrew Zelin shares his views on the importance of defining an overall goal for the process. 


I was very interested to see that the Market Research Society (MRS) was starting a mentoring scheme. Having been fortunate enough to work for organisations across all sectors in analysing data using advanced statistical techniques to find nuggets of information, and hence help businesses make decisions, I wanted to share this with others who were themselves at earlier stages in their careers. My focus would be working with researchers on the quantitative side and wish to help their organisations and clients generate impactful and actionable insights.

Four years on since the inception of the scheme, I am working with my third mentee. I say ‘working with’ rather than ‘coaching’ as I have very much found it a two-way learning process. I have gained insight into the workings of various organisations of different sizes and what daily life involves for statistics experts and how their organisation works with them. Some work directly with clients; others report to a head of statistics; some are looking to get over a specific challenge, while others want to improve their level of accomplishment and technical toolkit.

There has not been any particular typical communication medium. Originally, it was nice to meet in person once a month in a cafe, but that only really worked on days we were both in central London. Now of course, the ‘normal’ has changed and it is always through Zoom/MS Teams.

I am also open to interim e-mails (I always look forward to hearing the latest developments on what was discussed at the last meeting) or phone calls. The optimal meeting duration is one hour, as anything beyond that and one of us, at least, will get tired and lose focus.

My overall learning and advice is to ensure that it is mainly the mentee who drives these meetings forwards. The sessions are far more productive and successful if they are coming up with the next questions, the next area to cover and where they want to get to.

Ideally, they would share details of projects they are working on (obviously not anything commercially sensitive, just enough to understand the aims and methods) and they would talk you through how they might tackle this. They should be left at the end of each session with something to at least think about, if not prepare for the next session and invited to summarise this in an e-mail afterwards. 

The aim is certainly not to generate extra work for mentees (they are often already working long weeks to meet work deadlines), but if they are doing their preparation, you know they are engaged and the outcome is likely to be successful.

At least as important is defining an overall plan or goal for the sessions and keeping to this. Understandably, a big chunk of the initial MRS training session for new mentees is around setting a plan. It is great if you are able to co-create this with your mentee in the first session, driven by understanding where the mentee is now, where they want to get to in a year’s time (the typical duration of a mentoring relationship) and how best to fill the gap. 

Not having a plan will increase the risk of either spending time on things that will not achieve these agreed goals or running out of things to discuss. You will, of course, be there to discuss specific problems they are having at work, but it is best if you are able to work out ways of not only tackling this but reducing the chance of it happening again by building their skillset.

If things do stall, then going back to the overall plan and discussion had at the first session are helpful, to consider whether or not we are “on track” overall. The objectives may, of course be changed at any time, but the important thing is to verify they are still relevant, as mentees and the working relationships with them may constantly be evolving.

All in all, I would very much recommend giving it a go. The MRS boosts its overall knowledge through groups, by having presentations, meetings and training, so why not as one-to-one sessions? You will get a full day’s training and you learn about something yourself.

If you have experienced a challenge that your mentee has, working with your experience to help them find their solution gives you are real confidence boost. If you have not, then thinking about how you would deal it is good learning in itself. Have a plan and ensure mentees are driving it through at least as much as you are – and good luck. 

Andrew Zelin is a freelance data scientist.

For more information on mentoring, visit the MRS website.