The Value of Mentoring

February 15, 2012

The good folks at whydev.org are starting a peer coaching program for the international development community.   That got me thinking recently about mentoring.  One of my earliest mentors advised me to ‘always be a mentor and have a mentor’;  and  I have always tried to follow that advice.  Sometimes the assumption is made that mentorship is ‘older’ to ‘younger’ but good mentor relationships don’t need to be age determined.  There are different kinds of mentorship relationships, and formal and informal programs.  Some of the ways mentors can support you are in your professional career, through a new project, or in a new environment or culture.  And  some of the best mentorship relationships are when the mentoring is two way.

In addition to having personal mentors (and trying to be a mentor in turn) on an informal basis, I have also recently been involved in two more formal mentorship programs: (1) Developing a mentorship program for the Helping Babies Breathe  program  to provide peer to peer support as birth attendants at a range of new levels and in a diversity of countries and cultures learn new skills;  and (2) Through an evolving collaborative program called the Collective Innovation and Impact Institute (Ci2i) where changemakers from many age ranges, experiences and cultures are supporting each other to learn and practice the skills we will need to lead or engage in transformative social change. We don’t have ‘experts’, but peer mentors and coaches.

I asked Sherri Bucher, one of the Helping Babies Breathe program mentors to comment on her experiences over the past few years in Kenya.  This is what she shared:

As a North American maternal-newborn-child health specialist who has lived and works in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that mentoring is bi-directional and multi-dimensional.  While I may be mentoring my African nursing colleagues regarding research methodology, data management, and the logistical organization needed to incorporate pre/post evaluations into already busy training days, my African friends and colleagues are actively mentoring me regarding myriad aspects of the culture, the challenges they face as health care workers in a resource-constrained setting, and how to navigate, as a female foreign investigator, the interpersonal politics of a society within which I was not raised.

What are some of the aspects of a mentorship programs and relationships that I have found to be effective?

  • That the relationship be mutually beneficial and meaningful to both parties – that they match their expectations and goals for each other.
  • That cultural sensitivity and understanding be part of any cross-cultural relationships.
  • That time commitments be clear and realistic.

What experiences have you had with mentor relationships?  What have you found to be important characteristics of effective ones?