‘Creating time; making space’
A special insight into scheduling and prioritising mentorship
— From Sarah Winckless MBE, Design and Delivery Lead, Women Ahead and Moving Ahead

Time is something we all struggle with in the modern workplace. Busyness can be mistaken for productiveness and, so often, we forget to look up and interrogate our task list against what we are aiming to achieve or how we want to grow or develop. Mentoring remedies this. I so often hear that, for mentees, the quality of time and attention that their mentor offers has a profound effect of their quality of thinking. This leads to two outcomes: tasks being dropped completely so others can be committed to, or tasks being executed more skilfully. When it comes to performance, it’s a win-win. The question is, how can mentors and mentees maximise this time and attention?

Our mentors and mentees usually commit to up to two hours of mentoring conversations or group input per month. If they are working a 40-hour week, this represents only 1.3% of their time; 1.3% of their professional life dedicated to their professional development. The key word here is ‘dedicated’. Carving out time for mentoring conversations looks different for everyone – what’s important is finding that time and sticking to it, then creating the space for it to be as efficient and effective as possible.

Environment is important. Mentoring can happen from the side of a desk but it’s so easy to get distracted. Outlook pops up, a call comes in or someone walks past, and it takes up to 68 seconds to get back in the zone. Mentees and mentors can spend as little as 9 hours together in total, so that 68 seconds is important. Meeting rooms work well, as do quiet corners in coffee shops, even walking and talking outside. Investing a little bit of time upfront to find the right space, free from distractions, is well worth it. One of the companies we work with challenges the mentors to create memorable moments for their mentees. They see the environment of meeting being one way of doing this, challenging their mentors to books at least one session in an inspiring location.

Equally essential is creating mental space. For effective mentoring, both parties must be in a really open, receptive state, where ideas can be shared and challenges made. I recommend taking a few minutes before a mentoring exchange to get into the zone. Get present; make sure you know what you’re there to do, what hat you’re going to wear as a mentor or what you want to work on as a mentee. Create an imaginary wall behind you to block away distractions and a path towards what you want to create in the mentoring session.

“Create an imaginary wall behind you to block away distractions and a path towards what you want to create in the mentoring session”

One of the most important things about this preparation is actually the breathing: Modern life and work can put us very quickly into that animal-like fight, flight or freeze mode. Adrenalin and cortisol shoot up and we’re actually in a threatened state. In this state we are able to hear and process about one in four words; our thinking brain is essentially shut down. Conscious breathing lowers cortisol. ‘Am I in danger?’ becomes, ‘How can I connect?’ Great mentoring happens in that shift.

This deliberate creation of time and space doesn’t end with mentoring conversations. In fact, it’s only the beginning. Conversations raise awareness and facilitate understanding, but the brain rewires with focused action and repetition. Most mentoring work is therefore ‘homework’. A mentee must carve out time and space for practicing the thinking and behaviours arising from their conversations, between the conversations themselves, so they can return to that therapeutic space and say, ‘Look, I tried this and this is what happened…’ and progress from there. But until they’ve stepped off that cliff – had that conversation with the boss, tried speaking up in a meeting – it’s all theory.

It also doesn’t end with mentors and mentees. Coming to the launch, the training sessions, undertaking mentoring conversations, is time that – as a mentee, especially – needs to be ring-fenced, and ring-fenced upfront. If their immediate team is not supporting them with that diary time, they’ll find mentoring a real challenge.

It’s clear that taking the leap and investing that 1.3% of your professional life to mentoring yields rewards. But is that all it takes to uplevel your career? Not necessarily. Offsite deep dive training can create profound shifts in thinking and knowledge, and skills gaps can be filled by many other forms of professional development. What mentoring can do is help someone see what those gaps look like and choose how to address them in a mindful and targeted way. Investing time in and making the space for mentoring can help individuals spend their CPD hours more wisely, maximising the benefits for them and their organisation.