What is mentoring? Who is a mentor? Several experts have published their definitions over the years.
Kathy Kram, well known author of multiple papers and books on mentoring and Professor in Management at the Boston University School of Management, defines a mentor as “someone who may provide a host of career development and psychosocial functions, which may include role modelling and sponsoring.” These insights were published in her book Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organisational Life in 1984.
Fast forward some 35 odd years and today, in less academic terms we understand mentoring to be the offering of advice or guidance by a person – typically with more experience, skills or expertise – for the benefit of another individual’s personal and professional development.
Mentoring is often used in the same context as coaching, yet they have very different applications.
According to Kram, the career functions of mentoring involve sponsorship, protection, challenge, exposure and visibility. Each of these tends to relate to on-the-job activities aiming to enhance an individual’s capability and standing in an organisation. Coaching however focuses on an individual’s inner self; including behaviours and values, clarity of identity and effectiveness in a role.
We define mentoring as “a collaborative relationship, that uses an experiential learning framework to help the mentee identify and remove any interference that limits the expression of their full potential.”
There are also times when mentoring is required, when a colleague wants the benefit of someone’s knowledge, experience and advice on what course of action he/she should take.
Then there are times when a coaching conversation is called for, when a more structured approach is needed and professional experience and beliefs are not what’s required, and may even get in the way. In times like these, the goal is to facilitate the process of self-discovery, helping the individual commit to action based on their own conclusions.
The difference between these two situations is significant and requires very different conversations. Whilst there are clear differences between mentoring and coaching, what they do have in common is a shared objective to help a person enhance or realise their capability and potential.
Mentoring involves at a minimum three parties – the mentor, the mentee and the organisation who all stand to benefit from the positive effects it can deliver.
• supports the development and growth of people – people are the source of value creation and innovation. Unlike other types of assets that can be purchased or traded, it is the people that differentiate a company from its competitors, providing a strong incentive for organisations to invest in their development. Another way of looking at this is to consider the cost of replacement including recruitment, training and time
• is a development tool that can send a positive message to employees. It offers the opportunity for employees to broaden their skills, be sponsored by senior people, gain more visibility and move into more senior roles
• provides a channel for transferring knowledge from senior, experienced managers to those with less experience; it can also bridge generational gaps and retain valuable IP
• is one approach to retention. It communicates to employees that they are valued and the organisation is interested in developing their career. It increases employee engagement by building a bond between an employee and the organisation and enhancing job satisfaction
Translating the benefits of mentoring into financial terms is not as clear. Whilst employee engagement, satisfaction and individual performance can be measured, determining the financial savings as a result of mentoring is difficult. That said, our intuition and experience tells us that the benefits of mentoring are real and many executives today see mentoring as part of their role and responsibility.
This leads us to the discussion of who should be mentored? Taking a general view, one may think all employees are entitled to a mentor. Whilst this may be an equitable approach, the reality is that some people will not benefit from mentoring. These people tend not to have career or learning aspirations; they are content to remain in their current role and have little if any interest in a mentoring relationship and don’t see anything to gain from the process.
Employees likely to gain the most from mentoring are those individuals more career oriented than job oriented, typically at a entry point or mid-management level, or they may have moved into a more senior role or have just joined an organisation. Suitable candidates do not necessarily have to be in the high performer category. There may be employees struggling technically with their job who demonstrate a positive attitude towards learning and development but can’t seem to find their way. They too are deserving of the opportunity.
To get the most out of mentoring, it is important for mentees to have a level of self-awareness; a sense of their strengths and development needs, be eager to listen, learn and have ambition in terms of advancing and taking on more responsibility.
So what makes a good mentor? Ideally someone well respected in an organisation with greater experience and knowledge so they can share and guide the mentee by reflecting on their own experiences. It is preferable that the mentor is someone other than the mentee’s manager so as to avoid cross-over with the two roles. In terms of style a mentor needs to be a good listener; to be able to empathise and support. They typically have and set high standards and make themselves available and are willing to invest time and effort.
Effective mentors create developmental experiences for their mentees, have access to information and people who can help their mentee with their career and most importantly communicate in a candid, honest manner.
In business today it is common for mentees to seek multiple mentors depending on their needs and what they think is likely to work best for them. For example, they may identify one person to focus on their career, another to develop or enhance a particular skill or gain functional knowledge of a particular business unit. Whether a mentee opts for a one on one or one to many approach, the most important thing is identifying a good fit so as to reap the value of developing and building a long term relationship.
However a word of caution here – we do not necessarily subscribe to this view – unless all mentors act in close collaboration to the benefit of the mentee. Mentor conflict is not a productive outcome with the resultant confusion for the mentee. Gold is found by the mentee when a mentor is found who fits all prescribed roles!
Any Organisation should foster a Learning Culture – characteristics to look for
Continual learning supports organisational success. When skilled employees share their knowledge and experience across an organisation all parties stand to benefit. Most organisations today have some form of mentoring happening, whether it be a more formal program or a less formal arrangement.
For a mentoring relationship to be successful, it requires the commitment of both parties where there is mutual agreement of each other’s expectations in order to maximise value. Mentoring is a dynamic process. Depending on the career and learning stage, the requirements of a mentee and mentor will be quite different in terms of needs and insights to be shared.
Being approached to be a mentor either by your organisation or directly by an employee can be a flattering experience. You are identified because you are respected and credible, with knowledge and experience that can be shared for the benefit of helping others to learn.
Smart mentoring will take into account the interests of the organisation and the individual. Apart from it being a motivating experience for you and your mentee, the benefit to the business is about the investment making a positive contribution to the bottom line through skill development and retention.
It is not just the mentee in these relationships who seeks value from the process. Mentors invest their time and impart their learning and skills, providing career advice as well as both personal and professional enrichment. A mentor wants to see that their efforts have been a success and that the agreed goals are being achieved. Mutual benefit can only be achieved if both parties commit to honesty and having open and frank conversations: even when the feedback may be challenging or confronting. It is important that a mentee has an open mind about listening in order to learn and move forward.
Getting the most out of mentoring is about defining goals, ensuring the relationship is reciprocal and fostering a learning culture. It is not limited to the development of a specific skill or behaviour, but addresses the whole person and his or her career.
Businesses should realise that people are an intelligent investment. Mentoring broadens perspective and provides an opportunity for growth and success.
You, the individual, should be on the lookout for these businesses!