The (seriously) life-changing power of unmentoring

Coffee with heart image in foam

 Confession: I’m a comms person and I’m rubbish at networking.
I love talking to people, but I’m poor at introducing myself and feel awkward and uncomfortable making small talk. I’m envious of people who move easily through conferences and training events, and feel that I’m always missing out on making great contacts.

 

So when Carl Haggerty first told me about Unmentoring it sounded like the ideal solution. I could miss out the bit where I have to sidle up to someone and introduce myself to them over a plate of unappealing conference sandwiches, and just jump straight into the bit where we have an interesting conversation. Networking for the socially awkward: perfect.

I signed up to Unmentoring in September 2015, so I’ve had a variety of conversations now. I started off believing that it would be a really positive thing, but I’ve been genuinely surprised by the huge, and yes life-changing, effect it’s had on my professional and personal life.

First meetings

The first couple of Unmentoring meetings I had were brilliant. My initial contact was Sarah Lay, lately of Notts County Council and now liberated from local government and blazing a trail through music and journalism. Talking to Sarah was eye-opening; over the course of an hour’s phone call I felt like I gained a ton of new information and a totally new perspective.

At one point I spoke about wanting to be inspired, and she pointed out that I could instead think about inspiring others.

Over the next few weeks I shared the things I’d learnt with co-workers and made changes based on the ideas she’d given me. At one point I spoke about wanting to be inspired, and she pointed out that I could instead think about inspiring others. I reflect on that comment often, and I believe it’s changed the way I work.

I’ll be honest, I definitely got more out of that session than Sarah did.

The second session was with Dyfrig Williams from the Wales Audit Office. I had no idea what the WAO was, or how to pronounce Dyfrig. I decided to start the conversation with those points and Dyfrig very graciously explained them to me (see, told you I’m rotten at small talk). This meeting didn’t even feel like work to be honest, it was like talking to a really interesting well-informed friend for an hour, and I was genuinely sad when it ended.

This time I felt like we both learned something from each other. Dyfrig wrote a really positive blog post about our meeting and, until recently, we loosely stayed in touch on Twitter. More on that later…

Challenges

Unmentoring has been a hugely positive experience for me, but it has been challenging.

After a discussion with Carl about the benefits of coaching and, buoyed by the success of my first unmentoring sessions, I made a connection with someone that I hoped would develop into more of a coaching relationship than just a one-off meeting. We had a good initial phone conversation, but then nothing more came of it. I suspect that’s because the person involved has a huge workload and didn’t really have the time, but as they simply stopped replying to my messages and didn’t give me a reason why, I came out of the process feeling daunted and a bit hurt.

It might not have been a lovely, cosy chat like some of the others, but I gained a hell of a lot from it.

The second challenge was an unmentoring conversation that almost didn’t happen. Towards the end of a stressful day and feeling totally monstered by my horrific to-do list, I sent my partner a short email explaining that I was drowning in work and could we move our phone call to the next day. I received an email back explaining that no, the meeting couldn’t happen the next day, that moving meetings at the last minute was arrogant and rude and that my time was no more valuable than anybody else’s. I cried. Which was embarrassing in the open plan office. Two days later, I received another email linking to an article explaining that cancelling meetings at the last minute was arrogant and rude. I cried again. Less embarrassing this time as I was at home.

I spoke to my boss who told me that I didn’t have to have the conversation and that I shouldn’t let it upset me.

I reflected.

I contacted my unmentoring partner and apologised for my behaviour. I explained what was going on in my life as a form of mitigation. He messaged back to tell me that he didn’t really care what was going on, but did I want to have this conversation or not? I did.

We worked out that the evening was the best time to chat and Skyped for 45 minutes on a Tuesday night. I learned loads and, against my expectations, enjoyed it. The next day he sent me links to some resources he’d mentioned, and a few days later a link to a job opportunity he thought I’d like based on things I’d told him during our chat.

I could have walked away and no-one would have blamed me. But I would have blamed myself; and I think I would have thought a little bit less of myself. Also, he was right. My behaviour was arrogant and rude. It was painful to be called out on it like that of course, but he was right to do so.

It might not have been a lovely, cosy chat like some of the others, but I gained a hell of a lot from it.

Life-changing

So you’re probably wondering where the life-changing bit comes in to it.

Although my first coaching experience didn’t work out I decided to brave it out and have another go. I had been reading articles by Kit Collingwood-Richardson from DWP and found everything she said insightful and interesting. I sent her a couple of messages on Twitter and eventually made contact to ask if she would consider having a chat and maybe doing a bit of coaching with me. Astonishingly she said yes. And it’s going brilliantly. We’ve had a few Skype chats and I’m hoping to go to London to shadow her for a day, and she’s hoping to come to Devon to speak at a senior leadership event.

The work element is fantastic, but she’s actually become a real friend too. It turns out we have loads in common and talk regularly about books, music and gin (three things all the best friendships are built on). What started as a way to develop professionally has also helped me to find a great friend.

And that’s not all.

Recently I went to LocalGovCamp in Birmingham and actually got to meet Dyfrig from the mysterious WAO in person. Towards the close of the day we started talking and an hour later we stopped talking, and realised that everybody had left the venue and the cleaners were putting tables away around us and tutting theatrically. The next day we started messaging, and then we started Skyping.

And then we started dating.

It’s all very new. But it’s wonderful, and it has definitely changed my life.

Give it a go

Alright, I’m not saying that unmentoring will help you find the love of your life – although in terms of having an original meet cute story to tell, it’s certainly a winner. But I can tell you that you will get all sorts of positive things out of it.

I now know two amazing people who make my life better, and who I’d be frankly devastated to lose.

If you have any sort of opinion on improving local government then you really need to be part of unmentoring and, if possible, the work of LocalGovDigital. I’ve learnt so much about local government, new technologies, ways of working, approaches and practices that I would have struggled to discover in any other way. It’s almost a form of ‘unlearning’ that allows you to find information and develop organically, rather than through a traditional classroom-style approach. I’ve gained confidence in my own skills and knowledge and in my ability to express them. I have a stronger, clearer voice and I’m a better professional because I’m part of this.

And the most incredible thing is that I now know two amazing people who make my life better, and who I’d be frankly devastated to lose. All because nearly a year ago I signed up to unmentoring.

That’s an extraordinary thing.

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