People start mentoring for a plethora of reasons, but for Guy Berry, the opportunity to keep the grey cells ticking during the first COVID-19 lockdown was top of his mind.

A former chief HR officer in local authorities, Guy had taken early retirement in 2015 and was enjoying a life of travelling and socialising when the pandemic hit and domesticity replaced day tripping.

'I had constructed a life after retirement and then suddenly I didn't have the structure that I had. I was becoming bored. I just needed something to keep my mind active and not turn to jelly. So I approached a number of organisations a couple of months into lockdown to see what was available,' he says.

Among these organisations was the CIPD, where he found out about the charity mentoring programme and signed up. This was not Guy’s first foray into the charity sector. Pre-retirement he worked with two charities in a trustee capacity and for the past four years he had been supporting the East Lancashire Railway heritage charity as a volunteer HR consultant.

'There’s just something about the sector,' he says. 'It is an opportunity for me to give something back. I am extremely fortunate; I have had a good career and had the job security and employment benefits associated with a good public sector employer. And I feel as though I am now in the position where I can share my knowledge and experience to support others.'

From challenger to counsellor to coach

Guy was initially paired with a charity in North Yorkshire, which needed mentoring support in terms of performance management, specifically managing capability within the organisation. He started to mentor strategic lead Amy*, spending about 90 minutes a week over six months. Sessions were conducted over video-conferencing platform Zoom.

It was important to define what the mentoring would look like from the start, Guy says. He prepared a short document outlining the various definitions of mentoring, from more academic methods and challenging, instructional guidance, to a softer counselling-based approach. He shared this document with Amy.

'I was very keen that we formed a ‘contract' at the outset to identify what the mentee’s objectives were and what they were looking to get from this. I found myself spending more time in the initial sessions preparing the groundwork and establishing what the mentee’s issues are then the mentoring flows. I think it is important to do this, because you start picking up on things in the discussion that you may address there and then or else make a mental note to return to the issue in the next session when I have had time to think about it a bit more,' he explains.

The sessions moved through different models of mentoring, depending on the issue. At one point Guy was counsellor, then challenger and then coach. As he tells it: 'Sometimes I would listen and reflect back and other times I would find myself using the phrase ‘there's an alarm bell sounding for me’ or ‘there's a red light going on for me’ when Amy would mention certain situations and I would take a different tack.'

One of these situations involved a member of staff who was especially challenging and causing difficulties in terms of teamworking. The issue had been left unchecked for a considerable period of time. Amy had offered support and a listening ear, which had resulted in this individual viewing her more as a friend, making tackling the performance issue even more difficult.

'There was an over-reliance and a blurring of the lines. I felt Amy had effectively been playing good cop so was never getting into a more detached, managerial relationship. The individual had been seconded into another role but that was just damage limitation. So we worked on a potential exit strategy,' explains Guy.

While working with Amy, Guy was asked if he would mentor another senior member of the organisation, Harriet*. Again, the key issue was around managing performance but in this case, he says, the individual’s behaviour was extremely irrational and difficult.

'This was enlightening for me because it was not the type of behaviour that can be challenged using the conventional performance management tools. I started to do more reading around a whole new area to me and looked at the research carried out concerning ‘uncivil behaviour’. The research focusses on individuals in the workplace who can perform to a standard that is satisfactory. They instinctively know where the line is and never actually cross it but are always right up to that line. Their attitude and the way that they work alongside team members and the disrespect they show to those team members and their line manager is evident – it’s not something you can pick up on easily, like insubordination but nevertheless has a big negative impact.'

In his first session with Harriet it also became apparent that there were other issues to address. He notes she was visibly upset and appeared emotionally and physically worn out. He discovered she was trying to juggle adjusting to a recent relocation, home-schooling her children in lockdown and managing her team – and this individual – remotely. To put it into context, their team Zoom meetings were becoming confrontational and then the individual would switch off their camera, leaving other team members open-mouthed. 'It was almost like, I will show you who’s boss,' points out Guy.

Guy had to call upon a range of mentoring skills, sometimes therapy and counselling, sometimes reflecting back and sometimes challenging. His sense of achievement is plain to see as he notes that by session four Harriet looked and acted like a different person.

'I think I have helped my mentees (re)gain confidence. They’ve had someone to question their approach and help them to tackle very difficult situations. To get more of an insight into the issues they were dealing with I asked to look at their organisation’s performance management and capability procedures. Outside the mentoring sessions I have had a meeting with the chief executive, and I've redrafted their capability procedure so the mentoring has led to me working with the charity further on a voluntary basis,' he says.

Guy is also mentoring an HR manager of a financial services charity as part of the CIPD programme. They are the organisation’s first HR manager and relatively new, having joined in the past year. In this case, he is supporting them through the technical and relationship challenges that occur during a time of change. The new CEO is supportive of HR and organisational development, which may sound like a dream come true for an HR manager. However, Guy’s mentee had moved from reporting to a director who viewed HR as a transactional activity and for whom learning and development and OD were just not on their agenda, to a new CEO with the opposite outlook. It was daunting for the mentee and she lacked confidence, to the extent that she questioned whether she wanted to stay in the role.

'It’s a very different style of leadership for the mentee; a leader has opened the door and the HR manager has to decide whether she goes through it or not. She’s got a job that's giving her experience and exposure in terms of working more closely with the chief executive and the charity has now established a people committee so she’s also working with trustees. I can relate to that feeling when you first go into a role and work directly with senior people for the first time, so I’ve encouraged her to pull everything out of this and to use every opportunity to learn and gain experience. If she has appeared hesitant, then I have felt it appropriate to be more challenging towards her.'

Mentoring brings variety

Guy’s experience certainly shows the wide range of situations you may face and skills you need to call upon when mentoring, as well as the benefits mentors themselves gain. Guy says he would recommend mentoring with the CIPD without reservation, and not just because it stopped him being bored during lockdown. However, he notes that during the autumn of 2020, when he was doing four mentoring sessions a week, he enjoyed having that structure again.

'The programme is enhancing and creating that capacity within smaller charities that by and large don’t have the infrastructure in place. On a personal level I've got a sense of achievement and I have got positive feedback. I was flattered when one individual referred to me within the organisation saying that they saw me as adding some value,' Guy says.

'It has also given me an opportunity to build self-confidence and enabled me to be more authentic. Because I have worked independently, I don’t have to consider the organisational politics or the workplace rules and norms that can sometimes constrain you. I have been able to offer observations or challenge in a way I may not have previously done; even so, I still feel like part of an organisation, albeit temporary. I've got a sense of purpose, a sense that I've added some value and I'm proud of what I've done.'

'Mentoring with the CIPD has been a very positive experience. It’s given me a sense of purpose and achievement. The programme fulfilled a need in me and fulfilled a need for the mentees.'

* Name has been changed for confidentiality