'Super partnering' could unlock the power of mentoring

10 Jan 2017 By Penny Whitelock

Inspired by seeing schoolchildren support each other, Penny Whitelock argues we need to invest more in emotionally and practically helping our colleagues

In many organisations headcount reduction continues to take place. In my experience this means that front-line managers are more overstretched and less supported by their line manager. Why? Because their line manager is very likely to be remote to them and is also overstretched and under-supported. The outcome of all of this is the fuelling of a blame culture, increased stress levels and decline in productivity. How do I know? I was on the hamster wheel and decided to get off.

I did some research in schools to assess coping strategies used by early years school teachers where, in many cases, one teacher and one assistant are responsible for 30 children achieving a specific set of results. This is not far removed from a manager having to hit a target. In schools, resources are much more limited and the children don’t know what they are meant to do, so that adds a layer of challenge.

I spent some time with an assistant and half a dozen six-year-olds who were really struggling to learn to read. The assistant was doing what she called ‘super partnering’; children were paired up, trained how to mentor each other and then supported as they gave each other some really intensive one-to-one coaching to improve their skills.

The children sat inches apart, with one pointing to the words and helping the other. The encouragement and concentration was palpable.

In the world of work, much of the coaching and support is done by email and telephone. It can end up being little more than something else on a long list of things to be achieved. Nothing on the list is made to be so significant that a line manager or colleague will stop what they are doing to sit shoulder to shoulder with you, see your frustration and feel the amount of effort that you are putting in.

They also don’t share the success that you feel when you get it right for the first time.

In the classroom scenario, the teacher had recognised that she had 32 teachers in the room and she knew the skills and weaknesses of all of them. She knew how to motivate each one as an individual, and she knew when to let them have some slack. She also knew exactly where the child needed to get to, where they were now and how to pull the levers that mean each child is taught in a way that suited them.

We can adopt this 'super partnering' concept at work, too. HR and L&D teams will be met with challenges and harsh words if they ask people to take this approach as an intervention method. People expect the problem to be solved by someone else – but it may just be that a shoulder-to-shoulder, frank and honest sharing of exactly where we are stuck is all that is needed to make a breakthrough. It is not just the learning that will take place that is important – it’s also about the bonding, the laughter and showing someone that you are actually interested in how well they do.

Penny Whitelock is director of L&D at Stategi Solutions Group

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