Creating a Focus for Your Mentoring Relationship
My husband and I recently attended a meeting at our son’s school for his yearly Individual Education Plan (IEP). As a child with multiple disabilities, our son’s IEP needs to show how curriculum and environment will be adapted to meet his needs and allow him to access schoolwork in the least restrictive environment. An entire team meets to review his IEP and set goals for the coming year. The team includes us as parents, an intervention specialist (i.e., a special education teacher), a school psychologist, a physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, vision therapist, school nurse, and classroom aide. The school principal also attends as an observer.
Having done these IEP meetings for five years now, I can safely say I hate them. I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know what goals to set for my son or what areas he should be working on academically. My husband and I simply want him to be exposed to the same curriculum his typical peers receive. I feel an immense pressure to get this right, though, because I don’t want my son to lose time or opportunities for learning. If the team does not set good goals, is my son going to be irreparably harmed? Will he not reach his potential because we didn’t give him the right support and foundational learning when he needed it?
Those are the typical thoughts and worries that I have each year when the IEP meeting comes due, and that stress and worry makes me dread these meetings. In a word, the IEP process is overwhelming.
I imagine mentees can feel this same way when they embark on a mentoring relationship and try to figure out what areas they want to focus on, what goals they want to set, who the best person is to ask for help, etc. A bad relationship or poorly chosen goals can cause a mentee to lose time they can’t get back. Their window of opportunity for learning and impacting their career might be narrow and could close on them before they have the chance to improve as intended. That can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.
On the flip side, a good mentoring relationship can result in a mentee reaching or exceeding their goals, finding out new areas of their own talent or skill that they may not have realized were possible, seeing a positive impact made on their day-to-day-work and longer-term career because of mentoring, and finding a mentor who inspires and pushes them. Having a clear picture of what you want to achieve through mentoring can help you plot the course to get there.
My colleague Randy Emelo has written about setting REAL goals in mentoring relationships. These goals are relevant, experimental, aspirational, and learning-based. This framework provides a unique structure for formulating plans within mentoring, playing off some of the factors that make a mentoring relationship so valuable to people. For example, the experimental aspect allows people to push themselves and dream big about what results they can achieve and what plans they want to pursue. Mentoring relationships should offer a safe space within which people can reach for these aspirations.
Building the Bigger Picture for Mentoring
It can be overwhelming to try to figure out what you want to gain from mentoring (it can sometimes feel like that childhood question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”). But if you pull apart the overarching topic and think of it in smaller pieces, you can begin to see how all of the parts come together to form the larger view.
Some questions you should answer to help frame up your thoughts include:
- What do I want to achieve? This might still feel like a big question, but it can help you start thinking about why you are pursuing a mentoring relationship. What is it that is driving you to find a mentor? Do you want a promotion? Do you want to get better at a new skill to improve in your current job role? Do you want to learn about other areas of or functions within the company? Do you want to improve your sensitivity toward others or become a more ethical leader? What is that big thing that makes you want to spend time mentoring?
- Why is this important to me? If you can’t explain why you are doing it, chances are you will not commit the time and energy needed for the relationship to be successful. Certainly, you think you will, and you may even do so at the beginning of the relationship. But then life happens. A project comes up at work and takes priority. Or you are asked to take on some additional responsibilities at work and suddenly have less time in your day than anticipated. Or your energy and excitement for the relationship wanes because you’re tired and only feel you have enough time in the day to do the bare essentials. It happens; you’re human. To counter these possibilities, you need to have a clear picture of why a mentoring relationship is important to you, and you need to keep that front and center in your mind.
- How can I make this happen? Do you need one mentor who can guide you over a longer relationship and help shepherd you along the right path? Or could you use multiple mentors who work with you on various skills and goals? Maybe you would find it helpful to be part of a mentoring group where you could learn from other mentees as well as the mentor group leader. You may not know right away what you want or need, but knowing that you have options can be useful. For example, you could start with a single mentoring relationship with a one-to-one mentor, and then consider looking for a group later to help you work on skills that you identify as need areas (perhaps ones where your mentor is not an expert and therefore you need additional assistance).
- Who can help me reach my goal? Do you already have a mentor in mind (a specific person), or do you have an idea of the type of person you want to find (e.g., a person with a specific skill set or who has certain experiences)? Do you need help figuring out who to ask to be your mentor? Do you know how you would approach this individual? If your organization uses River, you can use the mentoring software to help you find suitable mentors, or ask your administrators to match you with a good candidate. If you don’t use River, you will need to do more hands-on networking and personalized outreach to ask your potential match to be your mentor.
- What result do I want from this particular mentoring relationship? This question is different from the earlier question about what you want to achieve. This question specifically focuses on what you want your chosen mentor to help you with. Your overarching goal may be fairly broad, and you may need multiple mentors to help you achieve it. It’s highly unlikely that there is one person out there who can be your end-all-be-all when it comes to mentors. The more likely scenario is that this particular person can help you with a finite set of goals. This is not only acceptable and expected, but also reasonable. Once you’ve figured out who you want your mentor to be, you should also be able to clearly articulate what you want them to help you with.
My husband and I have begun an informal mentoring relationship with one of our son’s aides, a woman we respect and admire. She not only knows our son through her capacity as an educational professional and can give us feedback and advice via that role, but she also had a daughter with special needs (who sadly passed away a few years ago at age 29) and can give us the perspective of a parent who has been through this process before and who can give us advice on how to advocate for our son as informed parents. With her help, I hope that next year’s IEP meeting won’t be so overwhelming.
Already have a mentor? Download our Mentoring Health Assessment eBook to evaluate where your relationship is.