“Those who seek mentoring will rule the great expanse of heaven” according to Shu Chang, who in the sixth century B.C. wrote this in the Chinese Book of History. While the mentoring model that organizations use today is different from what was preferred just two decades ago (let alone 25 centuries ago!), the reasons for pairing employees with others who take an active part in their development over time are as compelling as ever.
Today’s employee has seen massive layoffs across corporate America and consequently has only a tentative and circumspect sense of loyalty. The employee’s unspoken psychological contract with his company is likely, “I will stay with you as long as it suits me...and that depends on how you treat me.” It is no wonder that top talent attrition is a great concern and expense for so many corporations - even for those within the Fortune 100 ranks.
Many corporate giants such as Sanofi-Aventis, AT&T, Merck, Merrill Lynch, Federal Express, General Motors, and DuPont have discovered that mentoring is a mutually advantageous way to both attract and retain employees. One of my clients recently saw a 15 percent drop in star performer attrition after installing a formal mentoring program.
The individual, or “mentee,” thrives under the knowledge that the organization is taking a special interest in his or her development and gains knowledge that may not be had any other way. With the encouragement, support, and friendship of mentors, employees generally become more productive, report greater career satisfaction, and enjoy accelerated career growth. Studies show that employees with mentors reach the executive level an average of two years sooner than their counterparts without such help.
For the organization, mentoring serves to preserve “institutional memory” by sharing information and experience from one to another. This need to pass along corporate learning and develop bench strength within the organization is particularly critical now that we have created flat and lean organizations and as baby boomers begin to retire, taking their knowhow with them. Mentoring programs are an inexpensive way to inspire future leaders, improve management and staff relationships and prepare people to succeed an aging workforce. (They should not, however, be created to raise awareness of, and appreciation for, diversity. There are many other forums better suited to this type of learning.)
Mentoring programs can be either informal (not organized and sponsored by the organization) or formal (created and maintained as a corporate function). Of course, employees will only give your company “credit” for those programs that you officially sponsor. If we leave employees to find their own mentors, it can feel like a popularity contest or a political game to them. Instead, by formalizing a program, we ask employees who are willing to make the commitment to develop new skills to step forward. In matching them with mentors who can provide the next level of learning, we go a long way toward assuring that we provide “just-intime” development to those aspiring to grow.
Mentoring programs can be either inter- or intra-company. Intra-company programs are naturally easier to organize and administer. While mentors in other firms and other industries from your own can be useful resources, they obviously cannot help with an employee’s need to learn the ins and outs of a particular organization, or technical skills specific to your company’s industry.
Formal programs have an endpoint - typically mentors and mentees transition their relationship into another kind after a year or two. (Note that this transition is not only natural and healthy, it is desired!). In contrast, the endpoint in informal programs is usually less defined, and that can lead to a painful period in which one or both parties are trying to dance away from the other.
Mentoring programs can be designed so that a single mentee is paired with a mentor for one-on-one coaching and counseling, or so that small teams of four to six mentees work together with an assigned learning leader. The mentoring goals may be different for each pairing or grouping, but will fall into one of three categories:
Chip Bell, author of Managers as Mentors, contends that the relationship works best if both parties have four characteristics: humility, an insatiable curiosity, the courage to trust each other, and the willingness to really listen.
People who want to give, are happy with themselves, and value what they know logically make the best teachers and therefore the best mentors. But, the best mentors are not necessarily teachers by profession. Nor are they necessarily of the same gender, or like their mentees in personality or background. And neither are they necessarily older than their mentees.
In choosing a mentor, employees should look for someone who has the skills, knowledge, and/or contacts that meet their developmental goals. They should select someone who has a interest in them, is easy to talk to, and who shares openly.
To give even the most motivated mentees and mentors the best possible start, their relationship should begin with a one-to-two-day training program. In fact, a great deal of research suggests that one of the leading causes for failure in mentoring relationships is the lack of training. Being a mentor is different from being a manager, and being a mentee is different from being a subordinate.
The US Dictionary of Occupational Titles defines mentoring as “one of the most complex of all human activities.” Without training, mentors and mentees are often not prepared for the challenges that can occur in the relationship: how to deal with disagreements, how to make sure progress is being made, how to “stretch” one another, and how to establish a sense of confidentiality, for example.
In effective mentor training, both mentees and mentors are taught their roles and given the opportunity to get to know one another. In particular, mentees are taught that they are responsible for guiding the direction of the meetings with their mentors. The most successful interaction is mentee-driven.
The number of business sponsoring formal mentoring programs doubled, jumping from 17 percent to 36 percent, according to a survey by Human Resource Executive Magazine. These companies are learning that mentors are an effective way to help employees and organizations prepare for their future. The mentor/mentee relationship can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a person’s career and, not coincidentally, one of the most productive programs a company can sponsor.