Roles & responsibilities

Welcome to this series of four films where the leadership specialists Lena Sobel and Matilda Drakvingen guide you through mentorship. The purpose with this material is to support mentorship programs or individual mentors and mentees at KI. In this film, we take a closer look at the roles of the mentor and mentee. In the work material, you will get tips on useful questions and comments.

Film 2

Work material 

How should a mentor "be" like?

This is a common question. The first answer is “be yourself”. But also be open, honest, willing to share and a good listener.

We have defined four roles for the mentor:

  • Overviewer
  • Inspirer
  • Trainer
  • Dialogue partner

In all these roles, the mentor uses the question as a tool. In most cases, this proves to be much more effective than providing answers. Sometimes it is also useful to summarise, or ask the mentee to summarise what you have been talking about. It is also important to find out  what the mentee wants to get out of the conversation. After that, you can choose which role is most suitable for the moment.

Below is a description of the roles including examples. Please, note that the examples are simplified to illustrate how the differend roles adress the issue. Therefore, they do not include questions that often starts the dialogues, such as "what do you want to talk about?" or "what do you want to get out of this conversation?". We have also assumed that the mentor already knows whether she or he is dealing with a matter of professional- or personal development, for example by asking “What kind of development are you seeking?

Overviewer

As an overviewer, you ask questions that enable the mentee to see things from other perspectives. You help the mentee to see patterns that he or she cannot see because the person is in the middle of them. The overviewer helps the mentee to both see the bigger picture and to discover important details. Once the mentee becomes aware of the rules that govern his or her behaviour, they no longer need to be steered by them.

In this role, it is important to look at the issue from different angles and to help the mentee to see things from other viewpoints.This means, helping the mentee to identify different aspects in their story and to help him or her see how other people involved might think, feel and reason. 

Examples of questions: 

Mentee: I want to think about the next step in my development.

Mentor: Tell me a little about your development so far.

Mentor: What do you already know about what you want?

Mentor: What drives you?

Mentor: What have you enjoyed so far in your job? And what have you not liked so much?

Mentor: Why do you want to address this issue now?

Mentor: Can I tell you what I think? If the answer is yes, the mentor can share what she or he has noticed, for example, that the mentee always wants to change jobs when certain events occur (the manager quits, there is a fuss in the working group etc.)  or after a certain amount of time in the position. Or other patterns that the mentor discovers.

Mentor: Draws attention to the fact that a certain value or approach seems to be important for the mentee. If that’s true, how does it affect the way forward?

Inspirer

The inspirer´s primary job is to believe in the mentee and in his or her abilities and powers. As an experienced coach once put it, “I don’t coach the person but who she can be.” This may involve helping the mentee to remember a time of motivation, joy, self-confidence or whatever it is that is currently missing, and to say “I believe in you”. It’s important to remember that the mentee should take the lead in this. 

Examples of questions:

Mentee: I want to think about the next step in my career.

Mentor: What do you have in mind?

Mentor: What do you know about what you want?

Mentor: I know some people who have experience in that. Would you like their contact details?

Mentor: You know, I think you can go even further!

Mentor: If NN succeeded, why wouldn’t you be able to?

Mentor: How can you find out more?

Mentor: You know, I wonder if this is challenging enough for you?

Mentor: What did you do the last time you took a step, and what worked well?

Mentor: What’s the worst that can happen?

Trainer

As a trainer, you help the mentee to find training opportunities and challenges. This might involve giving the mentee tasks or helping him or her to create them. Explore the area in which the mentee wishes to improve and find ways to practice. Sometimes this means practicing with the mentor, for example, before a presentation or a difficult conversation.

The role also entails providing feedback. Without judgment, tell the mentee what worked well or could work better. It makes things easier if you can describe the event as concretely as possible and to avoid interpretations. For example, instead of saying “you seemed nervous” say “I saw that your hands were trembling a little and that your neck was a bit flushed in the beginning of the presentation”. Possibly followed by “my interpretation is that you were nervous”. Or instead of saying “that was a bad report”, say “that report contained 5 factual errors,” (tell the mentee which ones) “which made it harder for me to believe in your conclusions”.

Your role here is to come up with ways to help the mentee to practice and develop in the area in which they wish to improve. If the mentee wants to become a better leader, you need to define what that means in concrete terms. Where they need to improve and how he or she can train and get better. This may involve active listening, setting limits, asking coaching questions, showing empathy, making decisions and much, much more. Use your imagination!

Examples of questions:

Mentee: I want to think about the next step in my development.

Mentor: What’s your next step?

Mentor: What do you need to know or be able to do in order to get there?

Mentor: How can we break that down into trainable elements?

Mentor: How good are you already in this?

Mentor: How good do you want to be?

Mentor: What happens then?

Mentor: How do you know you are (a good listener)?

Mentor: The mentor can provide tasks that entail paying attention. For example, if the mentee wishes to manage his or her mood, the first task might be to observe when he or she gets angry. What happened just before? What did the mentee do then? What did the mentee think about it? Or if the mentee wants to become a better listener: Practice by quietly repeating to yourself what the other person said. How much do you remember?

Dialogue partner

Sometimes the mentee only needs a dialogue partner who really listens and is present. Someone who listens and then shares his or her impressions. We would argue that the complete presence and attention of another person, someone who makes you feel truly heard, is not so common today. It is an ability that is useful in many contexts. By truly listen means that you turn off all distractions, such as computers and phones or even your own thoughts. Some coaching techniques actually boil down to letting the other person talk and interjecting with a brief “hmm” or “uh-huh” from time to time. Be sure to ask what kind of conversation the mentee wants. What does she want to get out of this? If the answer is something like: “I just want you to listen” or “I just need to talk to you” or “I’d like to tell you something and hear what you think”, then the dialogue parner role might be the right one for the situation.

Examples of questions:

Mentee: I want to think about the next step in my development.

Mentor: Tell me about your thoughts.

Mentor: What are you satisfied/dissatisfied with today?

Mentor: I’m happy to share my thoughts, but I’d like to hear yours first. I know you often think wisely.

Mentor: Who knows about this?

Mentor: Who needs to know about this?

Mentor: I understand that (what the mentee just said).

Mentor: How did that make you feel?

M: The mentor can of course share his or her impressions, if the mentee asks. If so, remember to frame them according to who the mentee is, not what you would have done yourself.

Once you have figured out what the mentee wants and what she wants out of the conversation, you can decide which role, or which mix of roles, is best.

The importance of trust

We always say that openness and honesty are important. But why is that the case? Well, they are important because they create trust. Trust enables even greater openness, which in turn develops even greater trust, and so on. This process is called the Trust Spiral.

In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey offers many examples of what trust means for speed, agility and efficiency in business. But also what it means for interpersonal relationships. In order for the mentee (or the mentor for that matter) to feel safe and reasonably comfortable talking about his or her shortcomings, there needs to be a reasonable amount of mutual trust. Trust that what is said remains between the two of them. Trust that his or her words will not be met with laughter and that he or she will not be seen as a failure. Trust that we can continue our mentorship, or whatever relationship we have.

As a mentor, you can only challenge the mentee as much as your mutual trust allows. In other words, if you have a great deal of trust in each other, you can ask quite challenging questions without the mentee being intimidated. Without this trust, challenges can become menacing. With great trust, the mentee can explore and test new thoughts and let go of defence strategies, excuses and prestige.

How do you create a sense of safety and trust?

You’re open with who you are.

You show the other person that you see and hear him or her.

You keep your word and say it like it is.

Ask: What do you need?

How can you practice that?

Here are some examples from the book Chefen som Coach by Sobel and Holm (2019).

Practice conveying to others (such as mentee, mentor, colleagues etc.) that you see and hear them. Try out different ways to do it: look them in the eye, ask follow-up questions, summarise and ask if that is what they meant.

When you lead meetings, show the participants that you see and hear everyone and make sure that everyone is being heard.

Remember things that other people tell you about themselves, especially what is important to them.

Be open by sharing more about yourself, what you think, your plans or how you experience the situation.

Another exercise is to sit down for a while and reflect. First think of a person who you already trust and feel safe with. This could be anyone.

Describe the relationship.
What is it like?
How does it feel?
How do you communicate?
How fast do the two of you get things done?
What is it that the other person and you actually do and say that strengthens your mutual trust (or how was it established in the first place)?

Now think of a person you don’t trust, with whom you don’t feel safe. Again, this could be anyone.

Describe the relationship.
What is it like?
How does it feel?
How do you communicate?
How fast do the two of you get things done?
What is it that the other person/you actually do and say that diminishes your mutual trust (or how was it established in the first place)?

Now reflect on your answers and draw conclusions from them.

Example

One example of how to demonstrate openness is provided by the chief executive of a company. The strategic reasoning of the management team had concluded that the company needed to demonstrate greater openness in order to succeed. This was not happening naturally in their corporate culture. Also, that was certainly not one of the chief executive’s strongest capabilities. How could he be credible when he at the next performance review said “Let’s all be a bit more open”? He simply had to be open about the way things were going, saying: “We’ve implemented our strategic reasoning and, after much research and discussion, we have come to the conclusion that what is needed in the future is greater openness. With our customers. With our suppliers and between ourselves. As I am sure you know, that’s not my strongest side. But I am convinced that this is the way forward, and I aski you all to help me with this”. He then continued by elaborating on how they arrived at their conclusion and what it could mean in concrete terms.

How do you know how much openness and trust there is between your mentee or mentor and yourself?