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What it means to be a mentor, by Elna de Beer

Read more on what it means to be a mentor to RISE's Sboniso Phakathi, by Elna de Beer.


“Joining the college in January 2017 to take up mentoring of Sboniso Phakathi, the person who became responsible for the RISE Unit at the end of 2016, was a decision based on the SAWC CEO’s belief in the ability of a young team and the courage to formally introduce mentorship as an innovative management and transformation tool. Meeting the RISE team earlier in November 2016, brought back memories of my own career where at times expectations of organisations and projects overwhelmed team capacity and experience. I saw passion and potential in young people who were working on the frontline of conservation. Committing one year of my time to work with Sboniso and the team was not a difficult decision. Reflecting on the year with the RISE team, gives cause for celebration and contemplation.

Mentoring consists of many things – help in day-to-day work situations and choices, workplace and professional development and nurturing, life coaching are some of the most common. Coming to grips with what was expected of the RISE Unit and how to bring about a shared vision within the team posed significant challenges in the beginning. Working alongside the team on technical aspects of projects the Unit is responsible for, allowed for learning by doing and the focus of the mentoring shifted to include the team. Mentorship remained voluntary and based on actual project work.

The Sabie Game Park (SGP) project in Mozambique became (and still is) the project where the team learned the hard way what to do and what not to do. It provided an opportunity where the full team could work together on critical deliverables supported by technical guidance through the mentoring process. The Tshikondeni project built the social research capacity of the unit and mentoring Linda Hlengwa in the technical aspects of research design and implementation, lead to Linda developing the Management Orientated Monitoring Systems databases for the SGP project documenting the village police monthly performance. The Mayibuye project in KwaZulu Natal is the first opportunity where the team will be involved from the conceptualisation of the project in collaboration with the community and where mentoring will help with not only technical project support but more importantly team development.

We often use the word ‘mentor’ without really thinking about what it means and truly entails. It means different things for different people and everyone who had the fortunate opportunity of a mentor influencing and nurturing part of their career or life will have their own idea of what a mentor relationship means to them. A ‘Mentor’ (n) is generally described as a trusted counsellor but I have learned that mentor and mentee equally learn from each other. A mentor may have more technical and life experience that a younger mentee but if you are not prepared to learn from the one in front of you, mentoring will fail.

In mentoring, I have learned to:

Ask questions – this is an essential step to gently challenge thinking and get people accustomed to anticipating the objections they are likely to hear – and prepare for how to respond to them.  Over time, they will learn that anticipating questions is an important part of their work.

Stretch abilities – when team members are completely comfortable handling their workload, delegate additional work in incremental amounts, encouraging them to take on higher level as well as broader responsibilities.

Get team members to take ownership of a project – identify a challenge they might be interested in taking on.  This becomes something that is completely their own, built by them from scratch.

Encourage new creative thinking – try to manage the conversation to foster group cooperation and mutual respect, building one idea on top of another, emphasizing that there is always opportunity to improve what’s currently being done.

Become politically savvy – educate on how to “manage up,” how to identify with upper management and address management level concerns. How to communicate within an organisation, i.e. when to cc and when to bcc.

Be empowering – this means both supporting and advising teams, and also pushing them to stretch and do things without your help. You don’t empower someone when you give them so much advice that they feel they can’t do something without you. Sometimes this means giving them constructive feedback on their performance. Encourage them to talk, let them tell you about what’s difficult for them. Don’t get your back up and become defensive. Maybe you can learn something.

My experience with the RISE team this year has been exceptionally enriching and I would like to thank Sboniso, Martha, Linda, Thabisile and Vutomi for the opportunity to work alongside all of you. You have taught me much this year and I look forward to continue learning with you in 2018. (Yes, I have decided to stay another year!)”