Successfully promoting innovation and creativity among young creative people through mentoring means treading a delicate line, as the Oxfordshire Youth Arts Partnership has discovered. Carmelina Lawton Smith reports

As director of the Oxfordshire Youth Arts Partnership (OYAP Trust), Helen Le Brocq has worked with vulnerable young people and young emerging artists/practitioners for many years and has become a highly sought expert on how best to apply mentoring in this context.

The people Le Brocq works with often aim to build a career in the arts, yet have experienced an education system that didn’t value their creativity and innovative capability. Their gift of individuality has brought them negative experiences from more traditional forms of education, designed to support those who conform more to a typical range of academic, behavioural and creative abilities. As a result, it can be hard to engage them in development.

This challenge prompted Le Brocq to become an expert in the application of mentoring to young people in the arts and creative fields. Her expertise has been sought and applied by Creative and Cultural Skills, Wales, Youth Theatre Arts Scotland and as far away as The National Arts Council of Singapore. She’s also contributed to the Mentorship Resource launched by Youth Theatre Arts Scotland.

Arguably, the very skills we seek to promote in the creative arts, of innovation, diversity and novel ways to view the world, are very rarely applauded or nurtured by the academic or vocational routes offered to many young people. Any mentoring relationship with such people needs to take this into account. It needs to tread a delicate line between offering transfer of experience and knowledge from a more seasoned professional to a relative novice in a particular field, supporting the mentee in their developmental journey through the benefit of their experience. At the same time, not directing choices and decisions that only the mentee can make, thus nourishing and supporting the growth of creativity and innovation. Mentoring young creatives can therefore take two very distinct forms, as outlined in the following.

  • Mentoring around their professional persona

This requires a focus on commercial skills such as networking, marketing, financial and project management. Although these are all vital to a creative career, in earlier years they may have been seen as inconvenient, unnecessary and uninspiring by innovative youth. As their artistic capability develops, the realisation that a career in the arts needs such a focus may best be delivered by an experienced artist/innovator who can act as guide and role model.


  • Mentoring around their creative process

Here the role is likely to draw more from coaching, and aims to help the artist develop, shape and mould their ideas without seeking to influence or role model how it should be done. As Le Brocq says, “Creative ideas can be fragile”, and the mentoring process
can easily smother or stifle the inexperienced creative talent.

This tension presents a unique challenge for mentoring of creativity and innovation. It’s about using the mentor’s knowledge and experience in relation to the professional process that can empathise with the emotional journey of breaking new ground, while ensuring the role modelling does not extend to the creative process, where the innovation, creativity and idiosyncrasy must be protected. Le Brocq describes this as being an “active witness to their creative development … the ability to help shape and structure their innovative capability without interfering”.


Tips and lessons

Over the past five years, Le Brocq has developed and applied the art of mentoring in many creative contexts and summarises her key lessons on how to mentor creativity and innovation with modern generations. This learning has valuable lessons for many other contexts where we seek to promote innovation and creativity – vital weapons in this fast-changing organisational world.


  1. Ensure a mentee-driven process

Creative and innovative people can be fiercely independent and like to push boundaries and challenge the status quo, yet they can also be collaborative and inclusive. It’s vital therefore to give them choice and autonomy in the mentoring process. It’s often recommended that mentees have a choice in their selection of mentor and this is even more important for creative people as a critical first step. Ensure they not only choose their mentor, but that they have a hand in the way the mentoring is organised. Any attempt to coerce, dictate or regulate the process may seriously undermine the success of the relationship.

The process of engaging and directing the mentoring relationship also empowers the mentee and pays dividends in confidence: vital to promote in those who will have to be the standard bearer for their future work. The mentee needs to be an active agent in the process to say: “This is what I want to do – how do I achieve this without doing it your way?”


  1. Be clear about purpose

For many creative and innovative people, the line between work and play is very fine. Inspiration can strike at any moment and they may spark ideas and projects from their diverse interactions with the world. There’s also very rarely a defined career path that can be followed. This makes it all the more important to clearly define the purpose of the mentoring.

Many will seek informal mentors through connections, but this can lead to unstructured and deeply philosophical discussions that inspire exploration, but generate few actions and outputs. It can help to ask the mentee to define what they want the mentoring project to achieve. This isn’t a contract as in coaching, but a clear statement of purpose, defined in their own terms. This can be vital to help the mentor define appropriate support.

These include:

  • Directional support, which might include ideas for appropriate outlets for their work
  • A Procedural focus that’s more about how they work and develop their art
  • This can merge into Artistic input where they need to better understand their own creative process and how to nurture their individual voice
  • Finally, many face an Existential crisis to be addressed in order to define their identity as an artist. Work on: “What kind of a practitioner do I want to be?” or “Do I want to do this at all?”

Defining this focus early will help both mentor and mentee create and stick to a clear route map.


  1. Create a collaborative and challenging relationship

In avoiding direction, the development of the creative process arguably draws more from coaching, but the role diverges from this in one important respect. The mentee will greatly benefit from a mentor who has experienced and can articulate the emotional rollercoaster that is often a byproduct of the creative developmental journey.

While a coach would hold back from sharing such experience, the mentor who has struggled with their own process to reach a point of creative innovation can empathise with the mentee and help them prepare for the challenges ahead. The process is one of collaboration. The mentor may be able to engage in a joint process that goes well beyond what might be expected in traditional coaching or mentoring.

While acting as a sounding board, the mentor may also act as a collaborative partner to spark ideas, gain inspiration or generate innovative and creative solutions for both parties.

This ‘generous relationship’ contributes a safe space in which to explore, challenge and promote risk taking. Few innovations result from safe choices so pushing the mentee into the ‘stretch zone’ is likely to result in a more creative output.


  1. Build confidence and self-belief

“All art comes from asking questions”, explains Le Brocq, “questions of the materials or questions about the message to convey.” But questioning requires courage and self-belief that many lack in the early stages of their career. Steps can be tentative, failures common and setbacks frequent; all this can seriously damage the self-belief required to ask the difficult questions.

The mentoring of the creative journey needs to nurture this self-belief without precipitating the dependency often created by affirmation or praise.

The confidence needs to be supported by giving validity to the chosen path. In engaging, shaping and empowering action, the mentor helps acknowledge the person and their unique contribution.

The process of listening, exploring and giving voice and credence to the most daring of ideas is a key function in this creative mentoring space. Experiencing engaged discussion and feedback can be a vital element in giving the confidence and self-belief to develop, refine and articulate often initially unformed concepts.


  1. Use creative approaches

Innovative and creative people respond well to creative methods. Le Brocq has observed that during challenges in understanding between mentee and mentor, the introduction of creative techniques has been a valuable mediator of the communication process.

Finding a shared creative language can enable a significant breakthrough; so musicians might use this common language to understand each other, or two visual artists have been known to draw the outcome of their mentoring session to great effect. Therefore the introduction of creative methods like rich pictures technique or other innovative approaches might facilitate the mentoring process.

This means using mentors with the capability to work in this way and who can contextualise knowledge and experience for the mentee. For some, this creative approach becomes a vital part of the communication as it’s not uncommon for innovative talent to experience dyslexia, for example, where using alternative means of development becomes a vital mentoring tool.

Engaging in such a creative relationship can also mean that the relationship becomes far more a partnership of innovation, with suggestions, experiences and the mentor helping contribute to the problem-solving process required to take an idea forward.

The ability to leverage the unique perspective offered by some of the most creative talent will often require creative mentors happy to work with alternative approaches, but who can also recount the tough journey that often lies ahead with credibility.


  1. Set tasks, not goals

Many artistically talented people have a resistance to goal setting, preferring a process of exploration and evolution in their artistic output. Yet without structure and scaffolding it’s easy for creative ideas to fail to materialise.

Le Brocq recounts how one young man who had a strong perfectionist streak would destroy any output not deemed ‘perfect’. For him the challenge was to understand his own creative process, and the way he was scuppering his own achievement, and to break down and structure the activities and milestones. Once the mentor had helped him understand the building blocks of his creative talent he could set his direction and be more productive.

It’s easy to see how this process can translate to other contexts where innovative ideas may be dismissed within a hierarchy. In such cases, the ability to build support and alliances is as important as generating the ideas and it is important to help mentees appreciate these steps.

This presents a key challenge for the mentor who needs to manage the paradox of helping set out tasks, activities and milestones, but stay out of setting goals that may be restrictive to the creative process. The mentor can help the mentee define tasks required to move their process along, such as in relation to outputs for work and career development. But the mentor needs to beware of getting drawn into helping them set goals for the creative process that remains under mentee ownership. Flexible, responsive and observational mentoring can help the mentee better understand their own innovative process and manage it effectively.


  1. Identify ‘valuable ideas’

The artistic and creative mind is often awash with ideas, innovations and exciting projects. But as George R R Martin, Game of Thrones writer, noted, “Ideas are cheap… it is execution that is all-important.”

One of the vital roles of the mentor is to challenge and help the mentee evaluate and shape viable ideas. The Hampshire Chamber of Commerce has been promoting Social Entrepreneurs in the Creative & Cultural Sectors and the main challenge has been to identify viable rather than worthy ideas. A discussion of what makes it ‘valuable’ can be a hard, but vital lesson for artistic or creative people to appreciate. Is it valuable because it helps my development or reputation or is it valuable because it could be profit generating?

Le Brocq describes her TEN test – where Talent meets Experience meets Need. This means helping the mentee as a critical friend to shape and assess the idea, not only for skills and capability, but also if there is a market for the project.

The mentor can help cultivate the skills required to decide which ideas to pursue and invest time and effort in. Artist Grayson Perry has cited his “smashing hammer” as his most valuable tool for ensuring all output remained of a high quality. Mentees sometimes need to observe their own mentors being self-challenging and discriminating in the ideas they bring to fruition. This process can be hard to explain, but easier to demonstrate.

However, in this process it’s vital to keep the creative embers alight with ‘Yes…and’ rather than ‘No…but’. The mentor can demonstrate their own process, but never kill an idea. Instead they may help the mentee to withdraw life support for it. The inspiration and energy vital to the creative process must be supported with a healthy dose of realism and pragmatism.

Mentoring of innovative and creative people can present challenges and Le Brocq advises preparing for the highs and lows that will result. Breaking new ground is a difficult and emotional journey and while previous explorers may have lessons to impart, they will never have visited the destinations that new explorers seek. Therefore, mentoring at this edge of entrepreneurial activity needs careful thought, clear scoping and a touch of creative inspiration!

  • Carmelina Lawton Smith is a coaching, mentoring and development specialist and OYAP trustee


About the OYAP Trust

OYAP Trust works with young people aged 7-25, especially those most isolated, vulnerable and at risk, using inspirational arts projects to encourage and support development. It uses creativity and the arts to provide opportunities to learn, develop skills, gain confidence and realise potential. It does this by working in partnership with inspirational artists and the wider community, enabling participants to realise their own personal, social and leadership skills, becoming catalysts for change in their own lives and in their communities.

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