A System That Works

By Jonathan Dudding

Volunteers in the UK, all with experience in management and business development, offered to link up as mentors for directors of ICAs in Africa in early 2012. The latter could use this expertise to enrich their thinking and approach to issues such as developing their careers and work; and for growing and supporting their organisation.

The plan was to have three to four conversations over a period of between six months and a year. Four senior staff members showed interest and were linked up with three mentors, one of whom agreed to work with two directors. Out of the four relationships, one did not take off, one stalled, one lasted as long as the director had an issue that required attention, and one is still continuing. This experience provides several lessons, many of them related to laying the foundations for an ongoing relationship.

It is important that everyone concerned is clear on what is involved and expected. While the concept of mentoring is fairly familiar (although not always understood) in the UK, in Africa it is less common. Expectations there are more in line with tangible advice and guidance, rather than questions to consider, examples to share, time to reflect and help to reach your own conclusions. Spending time to tease out these different perceptions and expectations, and to understand each other’s roles and responsibilities, therefore, is valuable. This also helps to build up trust. One mentor noted that the relationship improved after she became friends on Facebook with her mentee, thus revealing more about herself and demonstrating her openness. Confidentiality is also a key concept – agreeing on what can and cannot be revealed to others. In our case, all conversations were held in confidence, which is why there are no names or explicit references in this article. It is also wise for mentors to be able to link mentees to other sources of advice and guidance in cases where the needs are important but fall out with the remit of a mentoring relationship. In our case, the mentors linked the directors back to me in such situations.

Agreement on the communication arrangements is another key. Which technology works best for both parties? In the UK we tend towards using Skype – it is free and easy to use as most of us enjoy good broadband access. In African countries, these advantages are often countered by the inconvenience of carrying on sensitive conversations in Internet cafes, and electricity and Internet provision can be unreliable. In our examples, discussions with the mentees led to different solutions – in one case Skype was appropriate, in another it was mobile phone, in another a combination of Skype, mobile and email.

Which language works best? Two mentors were able to communicate in more than one relevant language for their mentees. So they were able to offer a choice of which language to use, or to switch between languages depending on their ability to express themselves on a particular topic.

What time works best? In addition to agreeing on how often the calls should take place, the broader cultural question of how time is regarded and managed needs to be addressed. As one mentor said “If I have a call booked for 10am, then that is as serious a commitment for me as meeting someone face to face – I need to be there and ready in time”. Whether everyone sees it this way is always worth exploring. Sometimes, the issue may not be one of commitment but of the power going off at the wrong moment.

Both parties need to be adaptable and flexible. The relationship needs to be mutually beneficial – this is not a one-way street. Mentors need to be ready to learn too and, as one said, “allow ourselves to be vulnerable”.

When we take these considerations into account, a mentoring scheme can work to the mutual benefit of both parties. It becomes an effective way of transferring knowledge, enabling learning and creating a space for reflection.

Jonathan Dudding is the Director of ICA:UK. He is responsible for its international programme, including working with partner organisations in Africa.

This article first appeared in our December 2014 issue

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