Group Mentoring Advice and Tips
Healthy and dynamic mentoring groups require one or more people to assume the role of advisor or group learning leader. This advisor should be someone who knows relatively more about a certain skill or has more knowledge and expertise in a certain area than the people who are in the group as learners. (And it’s worth noting that an advisor’s age and title should have no bearing on whether or not they are advisors.).
That said, if you’ve been asked to advise others, you should know that the role of an advisor extends beyond just possessing relatively more knowledge or skill. It means seeing yourself as a catalyst for learning within the mentoring groups. It also means stepping up to the opportunity where others have placed their faith in your ability to lead them towards learning and discovery.
What does this all mean in practice? To be an effective advisor or group mentor, consider the following responsibilities of your role.
Set the learning agenda
As an advisor, you must take on the responsibility to actively create and push the learning agenda. Once the learning goals and objectives have been established—either by you, you and your co-advisors, the learners or through a mutual effort—you must create a learning agenda for how these pre-defined goals will be achieved. The fact of the matter is that people who are participating as “learners” in your group know they want to learn more, but they are likely unsure about how to go about the learning that will need to take place to get them to their desired proficiency (which is why they’ve asked you to advise). This means that as an advisor, you should begin to think about and plan how you are going to expose the group to the topic or your skill/expertise area and then what activities and resources you will use to help reinforce that learning. Some of us are mega-planners and some of us prefer to be a bit more flexible (I tend to fall more into the latter category), but the idea here is that you at least give some thought to how you will approach advising the group around the learning topic at hand.
Drive the learning conversation
If your group lacks any real learning-centric conversation, everyone loses. You would be surprised at how sometimes people will join mentoring groups, get excited to participate, and then give in to their passive side and idly wait until someone else posts or prompts discussion. If everyone is waiting on one another to start or pick up the conversation, the dynamic of the group can easily turn into a game of chicken, where little to no learning collaboration happens. As an advisor and as the person who has knowledge to impart on the subject, it is your duty to drive the learning conversation and ensure that everyone is actively participating on a continuous basis. This means finding the right resources, activities, conversation topics, and questions to leverage to spur group dialogue. This also means that as an advisor you should prompt people to share their personal experiences and stories on the topic at hand (the good and the bad). Most people have a career survival instinct that keeps them from wanting to share failed experiences for fear of being seen as incapable or for fear of being somehow punished directly or indirectly as a result. As the advisor, try to foster trust and create a safe environment by first sharing your own experiences—most importantly those when you failed or faced adversity—and then prompt others to do the same.
Leverage active learning exercises
You, as an advisor, will know how your particular skill or area of expertise can be best learnt, so be confident in the fact that you can show others how to conquer your domain the same way you did. That said, keep in mind that most participants have busy schedules, so use common sense when assigning or prompting people to participate in learning activities. Most adults learn best with short 5-20 minute exercises, like engaging with a brief article, conversation, reflection, abstract, video and so on, that they can do in between projects, calls and meetings. Promote active learning by not only asking participants to read or watch a resource, but also ask that your participants respond and react to it with a personal story or practical feedback and questions. Easily create a sense of accountability for participants to engage in active learning exercises by assigning deadlines to when you want questions answered, documents or other supplementary content read and reviewed, posts submitted and the like. The idea here is to give people a sense of relative urgency, so that they are pushed to do the learning activity before getting distracted by the other tasks on their plate.
Model and reward exemplary behavior
You’ve probably heard the saying, “People learn by example,” and in mentoring groups, this idea holds very true. Modeling active learning behavior is key to a group mentoring experience where measurable learning is attained. If you want people to share their personal stories and experience, be sure to share yours. If you want people to put time into crafting thoughtful responses and questions, you must do the same. A commonly overlooked and easy way to encourage sharing behavior is by recognizing when someone does a good job or exhibits a behavior that you want others to emulate. Even posting a quick comment that thanks the participant for sharing their story with the group and bringing the topic to life will help reinforce and encourage positive sharing and learning behavior. It also lets people know that their comments, questions and insights have been seen and read by others, and that they truly do matter to the group.
As a practitioner with experience in what you are advising, most of your activities as a group leader will come naturally. You know where to start down this road to mastery and how to best learn about your topics of expertise because you’ve been through the process yourself. But to achieve meaningful learning, I urge you to go beyond the subject matter itself and be mindful of and committed to the learning that you are leading. This will help ensure that the conversation remains rich and that people are actively pursuing their goals in your mentoring groups.