The value of mentoring

To mentor or not to mentor. That is the question.

Being a mentor is not something to take lightly — it is a significant thing to do if you take it seriously. If you cannot take it seriously, including making time for it (for whatever good reason), do not do it as it will become a heart sink activity for you and not a great experience for your mentee.

I have mentored a number of people throughout my career — from young people wondering what to do next and needing to learn how to do a good hand shake, to new CEOs at the helm of new businesses. It doesn’t matter where their starting point is — the mentor’s role is to listen and to guide and to provide opportunities, and, importantly it is key to support reflection. A good mentor holds a mirror up for their mentee so they can look at themselves and reflect on the actions they have taken or how they feel.

A good mentor holds a mirror up for their mentee so they can look at themselves and reflect on the actions they have taken or how they feel.

Mentoring is not the same as coaching, however, although there is some overlap. Coaching is usually related to supporting people with tasks or with particular skill sets and designed to improve performance. Whereas mentoring is concerned with goals, confidence, relationships and behaviours, and crucially with long term development. Sponsoring and opening up opportunities is a key difference between mentoring and coaching — a good mentor endorses their mentee, acts as an ambassador to them and provides networks and contacts for them wherever possible.

a good mentor endorses their mentee, acts as an ambassador to them and provides networks and contacts for them wherever possible.

In my experience some organisations fail to recognise the difference between coaching and mentoring and therefore the alignment of support can go wrong. For example I have been asked to mentor people who are having issues fitting into their organisation — in one case this was appropriate as I worked with the individual to build confidence, reflect on their influencing skills and consider their goals. In another example, the individual was concerned with only with day to day issues and would have benefited more from an internal coach. Organisations must therefore take responsibility to electing the right kind of development support for their employees.

I have benefited from good mentorship and coaching as I developed in my career. Some of it was tough — I was told to smile more and that I was scary! I am not even 5ft tall so the thought that I could be scary to people had never entered my head. It was suggested that I went on an assertiveness course — I had not appreciated that assertiveness is about being comfortable saying ‘no’ — it is not about being forthright. As I became an Executive in the NHS, I was given a mentor who acted as a sounding board for me and helped me plan my career. She was there for me from planning on how to handle a ‘difficult’ chairman to guiding me when I decided to leave my top management position and start up PopUp Painting. She taught me how to re-write my story and helped me adjust from a large corporate environment to a small (very small) business owner.

Mentoring is highly rewarding but it can be painful — giving honest and direct feedback to a mentee might not make you popular but it is a Mentor’s responsibility to do this if it will help the mentee learn and deal with future opportunities more successfully. I reflect on one conversation with a mentee where I had to tell them not to become a problem child in their organisation — ie I needed the mentee to understand that it is good to be tenacious but also important to know when to withdraw.

Finally, mentoring can be fun! It is good to help people think about things from different perspectives; it is great to pass on experiences and support someone taking on new challenges; and it is wonderful to see someone flourish and burst with confidence.


Phyllissa Shelton is the Managing Director and Founder of PopUp Painting & Events. Her experience as a business builder and change architect spans more than 25 years across the health sector, including in the NHS and private sector.

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