‘Reality’ mentoring

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For the next couple days, Emily Prevost, associate coordinator of leader research & product development in the BGCT Congregational Leadership Team, will share some of her thoughts on healthy mentoring. Along with a lot of other things, Emily helps young leaders identify their calling and develop leadership skills.

Mentoring comes in a lot of different forms. It seems that, at least for me, more often than not mentoring takes place in everyday life. It hasn’t been a formally-stated, weekly meeting, create a learning schedule kind of affair.

Sure, I’ve been a part of formal internship experiences, but a lot of the most meaningful mentoring I’ve received (even in those formal experiences) happened during the normal day-to-day interactions. The mentoring happened almost imperceptibly over time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t planned.  Almost all the mentors I’ve ever had were EXTREMELY intentional about helping me to learn and to grow, but they made the process feel very natural and informal.

I realize that you may not be a fan of “Reality” TV, but thinking about intentionality in mentoring reminded me of a couple of reality TV shows that I ran across recently.

In “Project Runway,” each week the fashion designers are asked to create some kind of outrageous fashion design. As they create, Tim Gunn (former chair of fashion design at Parsons and Chief Creative Officer at Liz Claiborne) walks through their workspace asking questions to help them think through their designs. He doesn’t do the work for them and he lets them create a design that is truly reflective of their own perspective and audience. However, he often offers suggestions, gives his initial impressions, and provides constructive criticism to the designs. He also helps the contestants understand how their designs might be perceived by others (particularly the judges).

Although the format is almost identical, the host of Top Chef takes an entirely different approach. Tom Colicchio, award-winning American chef, also visits the contestants asking about the dish they are creating. And while occasionally he shows the camera a look of surprise, disgust, or interest, he rarely provides any feedback, suggestions, or critique to the chefs. They receive all their feedback after the dish is complete and the diners have been served.

While either option works well when you’re creating “reality” television, Tim Gunn’s approach looks a lot more like mentoring. In fact, this past week he was identified as “mentor” to the contestants. He takes the everyday interactions with contestants as an opportunity to provide suggestions, ideas, and constructive criticism before the final product has been seen by the world. He asks questions to keep the designers learning and thinking. It’s obvious that he wants the designers to succeed and to flourish. He really approaches every opportunity as a teacher, rather than a judge or critic. 

We don’t all have the opportunity to host a prime-time TV show in order to give a little mentoring advice, but when we’ve taken time to build relationships with people, it just takes a little intentionality to lovingly speak a word of instruction, guidance, or help. I think that’s really what mentoring is about. Mentors have the opportunity to share the learning they’ve gained through experience with those who don’t yet have the benefit of that experience. The struggle is really learning to balance providing help that comes from the wealth of our experiences while still affirming what’s new, unique, and different about the work of a new generation.

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