By Carter Hammett
Special to the Toronto Sun
It's a cold, mid-winter evening in downtown Toronto. Inside a cavernous office building, people are starting to arrive for tonight's event. As previously instructed, they do not interact with each other until the host appears and gives directives. One by one, half the participants disappear into rooms and await with questions.
A signal is suddenly heard and then the other half move off to designated locations. Ten minutes later another whistle is heard, and a flurry of movement occurs as bodies rush to their next session. "Ah," you might be thinking to yourself, "sounds almost like speed dating."
Close, but no cigar. This is speed mentoring, a relatively new concept in facilitated networking, and half the participants here are job seekers looking for advice on how to break into their fields. The other half are successful professionals who have accumulated experience in their areas of expertise and volunteered to share some of their insights on this frosty night.
The job seekers here have come with questions and have 10 minutes to obtain the information needed before starting over again. They realize it's okay if mentors don't have the answers to their questions; chances are the next person will. It's okay if some of the answers are the same: this reinforces the direction the job seeker must take.
Modelled after its dating counterpart, speed mentoring replaces potential love connections with potential solutions to career conundrums by matching volunteer mentors with less experienced individuals in tightly-controlled, time-sensitive environments. The mentee benefits from the wisdom of experience and mentors benefit from fresh perspective gained from someone just entering the field.
Speed mentoring is only now starting to gain momentum as a networking concept in Canada, but has already been used successfully to enliven conferences and enhance professional development in Europe and the United States for several years. The model has proven its transferability in a number of different environments:
An entrepreneur-in-residence program at the University of Pennsylvania matches successful visiting entrepreneurs with budding business professionals for 30-minute, one-on-one sessions. Every month a "guest entrepreneur" is brought in for one day to participate.
The Oregon Farmers Market Association holds an annual conference to educate market managers on current trends and issues. During a recent conference, experienced managers lined up against opposite walls facing their inexperienced counterparts --like a Grade 8 school dance. The inexperienced managers were given 20 minutes to present their business issues to three different mentors.
London's Adam Street Club recently hosted a speed mentoring event for some of England's young freelance entrepreneurs, who were allowed five-minutes to speak with experienced counterparts over cocktails before moving on to the next person.
Another benefit of speed mentoring is the active listening that is generated while networking. Professional networkers tell us that we hear seven times faster than we speak: Think how often your mind wanders while listening to someone on the telephone. We also tend to conduct internal monologues with ourselves while listening to a speaker, to determine our attraction to the data received, its usefulness, accuracy, and how it fits into the framework of what we already know. These distractions make it difficult to hear what the other person is saying, let alone trying to hear yourself think straight. With such a short timeframe to exchange critical information, active listening becomes forced and actively remembered as well.
Traditional mentoring typically involves goal-specific, one-on-one matches between an experienced individual with a protegee who work together to enhance the protegee's skill level in a specific area or work towards solving some kind of problem. The relationship typically progresses over a period of time until a mutually-agreed-upon solution has been found, or termination occurs.
Speed mentoring dispenses with those formalities, jumps straight into the problem, and thus straight into potential solutions, and occurs between two people with little or no preconceived notions about the other.
Tonight's event, hosted by ALDER, already features a twist. All of the job seekers are people with learning disabilities and as such, require accommodations to facilitate their information processing needs. For those with auditory processing problems, tape recorders have been provided. Some are easily distracted and have been provided with rooms to speak to their mentors undisturbed. A "time out room" has been made available for those who might be feeling overwhelmed. Throughout the evening, volunteer co-ordinators keep a watchful eye on all participants.
"Variety of perspectives"
About 90 minutes pass. All participants are called back into a larger area where they are now free to network at length with mentors they made a connection with.
One of the evening's protegees, Jennifer, wants to become a chef. She has declared this experimental evening a success. "It's relaxing to get into this kind of atmosphere," she says. "It's helpful to get a variety of other perspectives. Plus, it was really nice to meet people and get lots of practical advice."
Mentors like employment information officer Archna Kurichh echo that sentiment. "I actually learned a lot from the mentees." she says. "The design made it successful. The event showed that people are much more similar in their struggle for meaning and a place for themselves in the world."
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