How to approach your first mentoring meeting

James Barker is sharing his passion for digital communications as a mentor.

The digital marketing manager at NSPCC has mentored three people through CharityComms so far. Here, he offers advice on creating an informal, honest and useful first mentoring meeting.

“I aim to make my mentee feel as relaxed as possible in the first session and that approach starts before we meet. I send a friendly email as I think it’s easier if the first contact comes from the mentor – it can be daunting if you’re asking somebody for help.

I ask about the mentee’s previous experience and if we could find time to meet for a coffee in the next couple of weeks. Once we agree a date, I suggest they think about their key challenges at work to discuss when we meet. I will read over the information CharityComms sends mentors about the first meeting to help me prepare.

Setting boundaries

Being honest with each other is so important in the first meeting. To introduce myself, I talk a bit about my background as it helps potential mentees consider if I’m the right mentor for them. They might ask me about challenges I’ve faced and I answer honestly. I hope this helps them see that everybody makes mistakes and to feel more comfortable.

Early on, I’ll mention confidentiality. I always make it clear that I’m not going to talk to anyone else about what we discuss. I hope that helps mentees see that my job isn’t to judge them so they’re more likely to talk openly about their challenges. It’s a small sector and there’s not many people working in digital in charities. So there’s a chance that you will meet your mentee in a professional environment.

Setting expectations is a good idea. I’m clear about what I’m willing to help my mentees with. I’ll say I’m happy to read over briefs or documents they’re working on to offer comments but I wouldn’t write a digital strategy or communications plan for a campaign. I explain that I’m there to listen and help them to find their own way of dealing with a situation.

Asking the right questions

I don’t have an agenda but I will ask my mentee to think about their objectives and what support they’re looking for. Often, it’s about how to put forward the business case for change and influence more senior people so I try to get a good understanding of their relationships at work. I find out more about their background to help me understand how digital fits into their role.

It’s useful to replay back to my mentee what I have understood as it can help them to clarify exactly what they are trying to get out of the relationship, and for us to set goals.

Assessing the match

Towards the end of the meeting, I ask if they think they’d like to work with me. If it’s a ‘Yes’, I get three dates in the diary for the next meetings, which usually last for an hour and are monthly.  It can be hard to say ‘No’ face to face. I normally say ‘If you do change your mind, just drop me an email’. Nobody has yet. For me, it’s a good match if it’s natural and feels like a conversation with a friend, and they’re not guarded.

Everyone will approach the first session differently but I’ve found making it informal can help you build a relationship that works for both of you.”

Read more top tips and guidance about being a mentor in our resources section.