Applying Pragmatism and the Pareto Principle to Mentoring

February 28th, 2019

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK (NCVO) recently announced that it was closing its Approved Provider Standard for mentoring schemes, stating it was unable to make the programme both rigorous and affordable. Such a decision was not a surprise to me.

To obtain the standard, an organisation had to meet 10 key requirements through external assessment. An outline of the 10 requirements can be found on NCVO’s website. While a strong case can be made for why all 10 requirements are worthy of analysis, it is easy to see why rigorous assessment of them all could become financially prohibitive for many charities.

More generally, I believe the nature of mentoring poses particular challenges for assessment and evaluation. These include:

• Duration

Mentoring relationships can last months, if not years, and the impact of mentoring can last long after the relationship formally ends. Obtaining baseline data and capturing the longitudinal impact of mentoring is therefore a significant undertaking.

• Breadth of Impact

The scope of mentoring can encompass the whole life of a mentee. Evaluating such breadth constitutes a significant undertaking. Furthermore, the benefits of mentoring can extend far beyond the mentee. In addition to the mentor, the mentee’s and mentor’s friends, family, peer group, staff and organisation may all benefit from the development that mentoring brings.

• Numbers

The process for matching mentees with mentors can limit the scale of mentoring, and programmes involving as few as seven or eight mentoring pairs are not uncommon. With such small numbers, the vast majority of participants need to be evaluated for results to have any degree of statistical significance. This can make evaluation work harder and more intense.

Such factors can lead to assessing a mentoring programme’s quality and impact costing more than its delivery costs. This poses a difficult dilemma, in an age where there is ever increasing scrutiny on charity spending and an insistence that donations have the best possible impact.

So what can be done? For me the answer is pragmatism. With limited resources I would focus on impact and, despite the aforementioned breadth of mentoring, I would prioritise outcomes that are of most value to the mentees, as ultimately mentees are the focus of mentoring. Interestingly, of the 10 requirements assessed for the NCVO’s approved provider standard, only one looked at outcomes. In my view, a greater percentage of resources should be assigned to assessing impact.

Undoubtedly though, how a programme is run provides the foundations for impact. In keeping with the theme of pragmatism, I’d invoke the Pareto Principle to assess a programme’s operational aspects. The Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, essentially states that you get 80% of the impact or output from 20% of the input. It is a ‘rule of thumb’ that applies in a great many areas e.g. if you analyse a charity’s income, you’ll often find that 80% of income comes from just 20% of donors. Alternatively, if you analyse sales, it is not uncommon for 80% of sales to be generated by just 20% of the sales team. Essentially, a small number of factors have a disproportionate impact.

Within a mentoring context, I consider there to be three factors that have a disproportionate influence on success:

  1. Securing Great Mentors
  2. Ensuring a Shared Understanding
  3. Incorporating Choice and Time into Matching

Securing Great Mentors

In my experience you need three things to become a great mentor: time, skill and motivation.

(i) Time

Mentoring, like any relationship, needs nurturing and nurturing takes time. Consequently, mentors must know the time commitments up front and feel able to meet them. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of putting pen to paper in this instance e.g. asking mentors to sign a ‘commitment to expectations’. Furthermore, if the expectation is that mentoring takes place during normal working hours, a commitment from the mentor’s organisation is crucial too.

(ii) Skill

A mentor programme should aspire to have great mentors. With such an aspiration, it is only fair that mentors are trained in the skills required to be a great. I believe such training should be compulsory. If a mentor does not have the time to commit to training, it poses questions as to whether they have the time to mentor. There are also ancillary benefits to mentor training. For example, training can prove an effective means of thanking mentors, as good mentor training should prove useful to mentors in their everyday lives, not just for mentoring. Furthermore, training can establish a supportive peer group, which can serve mentors well for the duration of the programme and beyond.

(iii) The Right Motivation

Great mentors give of themselves, with no expectation of anything in return. In reality, the mentor often gains just as much from mentoring as the mentee. However, it’s the mentor’s mindset of ‘being there’ purely for the mentee, that makes mentoring such a special relationship. How do you test for such motivation? The aforementioned requirements help: clear time commitments and compulsory training often filter out half-hearted applicants. Simply asking mentors to explain their motivations can also be very instructive. Applicants can be surprisingly candid and hopefully you can appreciate why the following replies to the motivation question gave me cause for concern:

‘I’ve been told I need to strengthen my CV by adding some voluntary experience.’

‘In my appraisal, I was told I was a terrible listener, so this might help improve my skills.’

Ensuring a Shared Understanding

It is crucial that both mentors and mentees have a shared understanding of what mentoring is and what it is not.* Both parties should also be clear on the practicalities of the programme e.g. what it provides and how long it lasts.

Such things may seem obvious, but they are often overlooked. Don’t assume that because such things are clearly explained on the application form, website, programme guide etc., that they will have been read and understood by all participants. You often need to see the ‘whites of the eyes’ of participants and check for understanding face to face. This brings us to the third and final contributor to success – matching.

*Note: If you’d like to increase your understanding of mentoring, more information can be found on mch’s website.

Incorporating Choice and Time into Matching

There is no one way to match mentors with mentees. Each programme can pose specific constraints with respect to what is possible. However, in my experience successful approaches to matching share two characteristics: choice and time. Both mentors and mentees have a degree of choice in relation to who they want to be matched with. They are also able to spend some time with potential matches, before stating a preference.

Given that mentoring is first and foremost a relationship, this should come as no surprise. You may not have participated in mentoring, but if you’ve ever recruited for a role (or tried internet dating!), you’ve probably come across someone who seemed great ‘on paper’, but not in reality. The same can happen in mentoring, which is why choice and time are so important.


In summary, if you focus on securing great mentors, ensuring a shared understanding and providing choice and time for matching, you’ll be setting the foundations for mentoring success. You can also continue to be pragmatic by learning the finer points of mentoring from programmes that have been evaluated and assessed thoroughly. The NCVO still lists organisations that have gained its standard, so a quick chat with any one of these organisations may prove a very good use of half an hour. mch has also evaluated mentoring programmes in its time and a detailed evaluation it conducted can be found on its website.

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Prioritising Perspective in Tough Times

November 20th, 2018

Balance is a word that comes up a lot in mch training. This is because mch’s training aims to improve performance and I have found that a common trait of the consistently successful is that their lives are relatively well balanced across a variety of areas. Balance is particularly relevant in mch’s resilience training, which is an increasingly popular training topic. The resilient are invariably able to balance a number of complementary traits, e.g. they are reflective while also being very able to stay in the present. They focus on quality thinking and also readily tap into their emotions. They have high aspirations whilst being content with ‘enough’.

It is important to note that applying such traits does not immunise you from adversity. There can still be tumultuous times when nothing appears stable and despite your best efforts, life does not seem balanced.

After a recent run, the act of stretching provided an apt analogy, not only for the struggle for balance in tough times, but also for how best we can meet the challenge. Have a look at the following video:

As someone who normally has good balance, I was struck by how difficult it was to do so in this position. Nothing seemed stable or still: the sand was moving from under my foot and the sea was moving around my ankles. Looking out, the boats were continually bobbing up and down and even when I tried to focus on the horizon, it was usurped by the continually moving clouds just above it.

In an analogous way, there have been times in my life when it seems that nothing is stable and nothing can be relied upon.

However, take a look at the next video:

I am in exactly the same spot on the beach. The only difference is that I have turned 180 degrees and am now facing the shore. Doing so has allowed me to focus on a rock above the tide line, and it is now much easier for me to maintain balance. There is now stability in my field of vision, even though the world around me is exactly as before, and I am still impacted by many of the same issues e.g. moving sand under my foot and moving water around my ankles.

So the message here is that in tough times, prioritise perspective. Where you focus your attention is key. Even in tough times, if you position yourself wisely and are disciplined about where you direct your attention, you will hopefully find at least one ‘touch stone’. For me, a ‘touch stone’ is anything that provides stability when so many other areas of life are in flux, or under strain. Common ‘touch stones’ are particular people (a friend, partner, family member), an activity you find enriching, or simply a reminder of some fundamental realities, e.g. I am healthy. I live in safety. I have enough food to eat. Sometimes, the reason for one’s difficulties is that something, or someone, that you considered a ‘touch stone’, is now in flux. However, in my experience, it is very unlikely that all your personal ‘touch stones’ will simultaneously become unstable.

So in tough times, prioritise perspective, know your ‘touch stones’ and focus on the ones that restore as much balance as possible.

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mch’s new premises

July 25th, 2018

mch recently moved a very short distance to new premises. Consequently, for those of an ‘old school’ persuasion who still like to use paper mail, the new address is: mch: positive impact, Positivity House, 1 Stanley Hill, Freshford, BA2 7US

As the pictures illustrate, it is located in some pretty countryside, which makes it ideal for those who like to ‘walk and talk’ when having mentoring or coaching sessions. For more information on mch’s mentoring services, click here.

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The Role of a Multiple Colour Pen in Feedback and Leadership

March 6th, 2018

Much of my passion for staff development comes from my own leadership experience. Such experience includes having been both a CEO and a Chair. In the near future, I will be standing down as Chair of a fantastic social enterprise called DECIPHer Impact (DI), which gets great public health research to those who need it. Consequently, I have been reflecting on leadership in general and my individual approach to it. The reflection was prompted when a friend asked why I always took a four colour pen to DI Board meetings and below is an abridged summary of the discussion we had.

Why the various colours?

I use the various colours to consciously denote the type of notes I am taking. Black is used to record key facts and decisions, blue for my own actions and green and red are for feedback.

Why two colours for feedback?

Firstly, because using 50% of the colours for feedback reminds me of its importance. In my experience, the level of good quality feedback often runs in direct proportion to individual, team and organisational performance. In short, feedback with a positive intent, delivered in a timely manner, is a key ingredient to success.

Secondly, the two colours highlight the type of feedback I am recording. Green records actions or behaviours that I think are worthy of praise. Red records actions or behaviours that cause me concern.

I find that using colours really helps when I reflect upon the meeting and my notes. Due to the colours, I can readily see the number and relative weighting of the various types of notes I’ve taken.

What are you looking for?

When it comes to feedback, ideally, I’m looking for five times as many green comments as red ones for each individual.

What’s with the 5:1 ratio?

The 5:1 ratio came to prominence through research conducted by the psychologist, John Gottman. He was really interested in the differences between successful and unsuccessful marriages. Rather unnervingly, he developed a way of predicting, with more than 90% accuracy, whether a couple would separate within the following three years. A key predictive indicator was the ratio of positive to critical comments between partners. Genuinely happy relationships consistently average 5 positive comments to 1 critical one.

Interestingly, the same 5:1 ratio has been found to be a key ingredient to high performing teams in the workplace.

[Note: The Harvard Business School article, ‘The Ideal Praise - to - Criticism Ratio’, by Jack Zenger and Joseph Falkman, summarises the related study.]

Anything Else?

An absence of both green and red notes is often a cause for concern as it suggests one of the following, none of which is ideal:

(i) I wasn’t paying sufficient attention to feedback

(ii) Individuals or teams are not stretching themselves

(iii) I’ve forgotten my pen!

So a Multi-Coloured Pen is the Key to Feedback and Organisational Success?

No. The colours are just a prompt. The key lies in disciplined actions. The first of these is disciplined reflection. A favourite quote of mine, by the educational reformer, John Dewey, is;

“We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.”

In practice, this means taking the time to actively review my meeting notes. It also requires me to be really honest with myself, e.g. Have I been overly critical, by focusing more on mistakes than successes?

The second key action is disciplined follow-up: taking time to give feedback to the right people in the right way and at the right time. While positive feedback in the form of praise can be given within meetings, it’s advantageous to be mindful of individual preferences. While being praised in front of a group will be ideal for some, a quiet word on a 1:1 basis will mean more to others.

Positive feedback which is critical is almost always best delivered on a 1:1 basis. This poses challenges if team members are geographically dispersed. At times, these challenges can be overcome by using informal ‘windows of time’ for feedback, e.g. walking back to the train station with a team member after a meeting. However, sometimes it needs to be more formal and a special effort needs to be made. One memorable example is where I flew over 800 miles, specifically to give and receive feedback. While this was a significant investment of time and money, I’ve no doubt it sent out a powerful signal ahead of the meeting and played a really important part in it ending well.

Like with so much of management and leadership though, knowing what you should do is invariably the easy part. It’s the doing that’s hard. Looking back, I have not always been as rigorous as I should have been and there have been times when the discomfort of giving critical, but positive feedback has won out, and I’ve failed to provide it in a timely manner.

How can critical feedback be positive?

It all comes down to intent. If I genuinely believe that I’m giving the feedback to help the individual, team and organisation, then it can be positive, even if it is very challenging for the recipient to hear.

What about you? Who gives you feedback?

While I ask for feedback, I don’t always feel I get enough of it. This is one of the real dangers of being a leader. However, I often find external ‘critical friends’ to be very helpful, as are reflective conversations like this. Now I’ve got to go, or I’ll be late for the meeting!

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Don’t Leave Goals to a Throw of the DICE and Keep All Four Wheels on the Bus

May 9th, 2017

I recently read an excellent book called - ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ The book tells the story of how Ben Hunt-Davis and his crew became Olympic rowing champions. In addition to his riveting story, the coach and comedian, Harriet Beveridge, outlines how elements of Ben’s approach to becoming Olympic champion are equally applicable in helping you and I achieve our goals.

At the risk of stating the obvious, being motivated by a goal can greatly increase the odds of it being achieved. However, no amount of motivation can prevent misfortune and setbacks from occurring and it is during the tough times that motivation can be tested. Something that galvanises motivation is belief. Without belief, the odds start to turn against you and the likelihood of success becomes akin to a throw of the dice. But how is belief developed? A useful acronym Ben and Harriet developed to guide the development of belief is DICE.

Here the mixed metaphor of the above picture (hopefully) becomes clear. To increase the odds of achieving your goal, you’ve got to keep all four wheels of the bus going round and round. While each wheel is independent, all four need to be present. Otherwise, you’ll come to a grinding halt. The four wheels for belief are:

D – Deserved

I – Important

C- Can do

E – Exciting

Having all four of the above greatly increases the odds of success.


This wheel gets to the heart of why so many goals fail – we simply do not believe we are worthy enough to achieve the goal. We all talk to ourselves (whether we’re prepared to admit it or not). Sometimes such self-talk can be positive and affirming, while at other times it can be negative and limiting. In my mentoring work, one of the biggest issues I help mentees with is silencing the limiting self-talk and turning up the volume of the affirming self-talk.

This is not done through wishful thinking, as affirmation and positivity are most powerful when they are based on fact and sound judgement. A very simple and effective way of doing this is to write down five reasons why it is completely reasonable that you should achieve your goal. For example, if your goal is to successfully apply for a job, your reasons may include:

(i) I fit all of the essential criteria

(ii) I have experience of doing well in a similar role

(iii) I have successfully applied for jobs before

(iv) I have prepared fully for the recruitment process

(v) I am genuinely enthusiastic about the role and organisation


Very simply, to stay motivated by a goal, you need to have a compelling answer to the following question:

‘Why is this goal important?’

The answer should sit well with your values, and clearly articulate how it will improve your life and/or the lives of others.

Can Do

Even if you are not clear initially on how you will achieve your goal, you need to believe it can be done. As the successful car manufacturer, Henry Ford, succinctly put it:

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t - you’re right.”


Excitement is the powerful accompaniment to ‘Importance’ and ‘Can Do’. In addition to being clear on why the goal has value and rationally persuading yourself that it can be achieved, it must stir the emotions. The stronger the emotion the better. Thus, if proving someone wrong puts more fire in your belly than a sense of achievement, then go with the former.

The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, stated that to persuade and convince others requires Logos, Ethos and Pathos: that is logic, an appeal to ethics/credibility and emotion. A great goal requires the same, together with a genuine sense that you deserve it. All the best with your goals!

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