Mentoring Challenges: Is Something Burning?

The other day, I was talking to a friend who recently moved into a new apartment. She explained she'd been having major issues with her oven. She was burning some of her tried-and-true meals, to the point she had to run onto her fifth-floor balcony with a smoking dish so she wouldn't set off the fire alarms.

She reasoned that this new-to-her oven ran hot, so she adjusted the bake times a bit, but she still ended up with burnt food. At that point, she wondered about the oven's calibration. She did some online research and learned that oven temperatures fluctuate greatly—sometimes by as much as 90 degrees.

The best thing she could do was buy an oven thermometer, test the oven, and adjust accordingly. So that's what she did. In her case, the oven's temperature was WAY off—by as much as three hundred degrees. She couldn’t simply adjust it. She needed a whole new unit (the building's maintenance director took care of it for her in a day).

Now, I know what you're thinking: what does this little story have to do with mentoring? Well, picture all the mentoring relationships you've ever been in or that are taking place in your organization. Just like the oven in a new apartment, the calibration for each mentoring relationship is going to be different. This means mentors, mentorees, and mentoring program managers (MPMs) often need to make adjustments, even as the relationships are happening.

This is normal. In fact, you should expect to make adjustments.

So what if you're "feeling the heat," so to speak, and you know something is off in your mentoring relationship, but you're not sure how to adjust or recalibrate? Here are three things to keep in mind.

1. Change-up your meeting location. Mentors and mentorees often meet up at work (e.g. in a conference room or the cafeteria). Here's the thing, though. Sometimes we all need a change of scenery. Just as you might adjust the setting on an oven that runs a little too hot, you should adjust the physical setting for your mentoring relationship, especially if the current setting leads to heated discussions (or cold, lackluster ones).

Maybe for your next session, go to a local park with a bagged lunch or a cup of coffee. Or go out for fro-yo or ice cream. If you've been meeting in person, try a session via Skype and see if that does something to shake-up the conversation. On the flipside, if you've been meeting virtually, plan a face-to-face meeting ASAP.

There's no rule saying you have to meet at work or that you even have to meet during work hours. If coffee and bagels at 10am on Saturday works for both people, well…what's wrong with that?

2. Accept that not every mentoring session is going to be life transforming. You know what? Sometimes mentoring is a drag. There, I said it.

See, when you're committed to meeting with someone every week or every other week for 9-12 months (the typical length of a formal mentoring relationship), you need to accept the fact that, at some point, you're not going to be in the mood to meet or that you're just not "feeling" it when you do. Or maybe you're in a bad mood or you say the wrong thing or your mind is distracted by work, life, or last week's episode of Game of Thrones. We're all human. It happens.

But here's the thing: Don't chalk up one "burnt meal" as a reason to completely overhaul the kitchen and buy a new oven (I'm going to keep using this analogy until it dies, folks).

3. Don't be afraid to ask for help from maintenance. If you discover, however, that you're being served up "burnt meals" (told you I'd kill it) at two or more sessions in a row, then, just like my friend's oven, the problem might be bigger than a simple recalibration. Your mentoring program manager (much like an apartment complex's maintenance director) is here for precisely this reason.

Reach out to him or her and explain the issues. Why? Because your MPM is trained to resolve them. And yes, on rare occasions, "resolving" might mean creating a whole new relationship for the mentor and mentoree (emphasis on the word "rare," just like it's probably rare that ovens need to be completely replaced every time one produces wonky temperature readings).

Remember this: Occasionally recalibrating a mentoring relationship is perfectly normal. Know how to do it and when to ask for outside help, and you'll be just fine.

Here's to your mentoring success!

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