Is Mentoring Right for Your Company?

Early History

The concept of mentoring can be traced as far back as Greek mythology when the character Mentor in The Odyssey was placed as an advisor to Odysseus’ Mentorson. In the centuries that have followed, the term mentor has come to represent someone with wisdom and experience who becomes a teacher, guide and counselor to a younger, less experienced colleague. Ironically, some scholars believe that Mentor failed in his primary duty of keeping the king’s family intact. Similarly in business today, there are those who question the effectiveness of mentoring programs. Not every organization is in a position to succeed at instituting a mentoring program. There are several truths about your organization, which must be recognized before embarking on the path to Mentorship.

 

Several years ago, I entered a program the company I worked for at the time conducted to provide employees who showed an interest in leadership positions, a vehicle to assess and hone some basic management skills. I was excited about the opportunity and filled with questions and ideas that I was sure would revolutionize our business performance and the cultural atmosphere of the company. I was new to this company and my network was clearly undeveloped; what I brought to the table was years of experience and a desire to create a working environment that broke down barriers to success and fulfillment. What I did not have was a clear path to create or seize opportunities within this particular company. I knew I would need a guide. Unfortunately, there was no formal structure for someone like me to be set on the correct path. After some thought and some surreptitious questioning of some of my co-worker, I gather my courage and approached a senior manager that I felt might be a good guide and that we had some cordial, but superficial conversations. I asked directly, but humbly, if he would consider taking me on as a protégé. This was someone who was not in my “direct chain of command” as it was put, but he agreed to meet on the condition that we kept it informal and inconspicuous. In fact, I could only blind copy him on e-mails, so as not to offend my direct manager. I thought this odd, but never the less, I agreed. The totality of our mentorship amounted to two face-to-face meetings and a series of emails to which he never commented. After a month or so, I stopped sending emails and I never requested another meeting; I think much to his relief.

 

Where to Start

The reason my mentoring relationship failed is fairly obvious, but so many other mentoring programs sort of fade away into oblivion as well. Almost every organization believes that a mentoring program is a good idea and delivers positive benefits on an organization, however, so few withstand the test of time. If you are considering initiating a mentoring program in your organization, but are unsure where to start; begin by asking these questions:

Why? – Okay this one is kind of a given; mentoring programs provide employers with a way to attract good employees, develop them and keep them on-board. If this is what you want then you’re off to a good start.

 

Do I have the right environment? – Be honest here, mentoring programs are as much about psychology as process and if the culture of your company is competition based or there is rampant mistrust, then good luck getting a mentoring program off the ground, let alone sustain one. Don’t assume that because your company is sales-oriented that a mentoring program will inherently fail. The determining factor is whether your culture is one, in which your employees must trample over each other for jobs, promotions, favor or bonuses. If that is your culture and you still wish to start a mentoring program, then you must first change that culture.

 

Is your company growing? – I know some will argue that this should not be a determining factor and that mentoring provides more than a promotion. I agree, but it must be clear that the company is growing or changing in some way that will lead to something better. The company’s profits may be temporarily stagnating but if there is a plan in place to improve the situation, then that will be enough for employees to feel they are not wasting their time.

 

Benefits for Mentors

Mentoring is like love, in that few can explain the intricacies of how it works; even fewer can deny the impact that it has, if used properly, on developing a positive bond between an individual and an organization. Effective mentoring enhances developmental needs of protégés and accelerates their development as leaders. Development of managers, who are capable of carrying an organization toward its future goals through relationship building, is the most common understanding of the benefit of effective mentoring programs, but it is not the only benefit of its use. Organizations have had to become very adept at adapting to dynamic environmental pressures; it has become imperative that organizations expand their knowledge base significantly and be able to connect their members to that knowledge quickly. It is a knowledge base that incorporates relational, cultural, social, environmental factors and creates positive outcomes on how employees balance their individual creativity with the structural needs of the organization.

 

While not a cure-all for a lack of upward mobility and support, mentoring programs can go a long way toward increasing member morale and loyalty. Mentors are rewarded with a means to pass along the wisdom they have gained through experience; they receive tremendous satisfaction in helping others while increasing their own self-esteem and confidence. Research by Gentry, Weber and Sardi (2008) shows that “individuals engaged as mentors in the workplace were perceived as better performing managers” (Williams & Kim, 2011).

 

Benefits for Protégés

For the protégé, the benefits of the mentoring relationship includes knowledge acquisition, increased competency, improved critical thinking, integration into the cultural environment and an enhanced sense of belonging. Remind yourself of the time when you were a new employee or member of an organization, fresh from training or orientation and ready to take on the world; what fears did you have? Even simple tasks like identifying your workspace; negotiating how it would be set up and where to get supplies seemed daunting at the time. For a while, you had only the facade of understanding the rituals that take place and the stories told. You were armed with only a few metaphors and artifacts to give you a sense of the environment you were about to inhabit, but alas, only time and trial gave you true meaning.  Later, after you mastered the little things, you began to look for more responsibilities, perhaps a promotion into management. If there were no jobs posted, how did you let the appropriate people know you were interested? What steps could you take to improve the odds that once you were promoted you could handle job? How does one gain confidence in something they have never done before? Mentoring answers all these questions and more, for both individuals and the organization.

 

Mentoring programs can come two forms, formal and informal; the differences in the two can be seen in how they are formed from inception; formal programs are initiated by the organization and are an effort to match mentors and protégés toward specific outcomes. Formal programs often include additional training in order to orient participants to their roles and obligations. Organizations will always have some qualifying criteria for admission into the program and retention is inevitably controlled by those outside the mentoring relationship. Based on the comments of Lester, Hannah, Harms, Vogelgesang, & Avolio “prior research suggests that formal mentorship programs that compel participation are largely ineffective” (2011, p. 410). Organizations should carefully consider the form in which their mentoring program will take. Informal programs tend to have an organic feel to them; they emerge spontaneously from the human relationships that come about during the course business interaction. Although there is no formally sanctioned structure, informal programs are invaluable in developing trust within an organization. In either case, the first order of business for the pairing is that they get to know each other on a sincere and human level. From there they must create and exhibit trust in each other and have a genuine concern for the others well-being.

 

Benefits for Companys

So far, we have focused on the benefits of mentoring from the perspective of the mentor and protégé, but what institutional value exists? If organizations are to remain competitive in an diverse yet shrinking global economy, the inability to adapt swiftly could mean institutional extinction. As part of their culture, companies develop a rhythm and pace to their operations; mentoring helps to indoctrinate members to the idiosyncrasies and structure of an organization while injecting fresh ideas from protégés into the minds of senior managers. Humans, by nature are fond of holding on to familiar things; senior members are often heard reveling in the way things have always been done. One of the more significant advantages of mentorship is that newer members are not confined by the institutional memories that often restrict creativity. With mentoring programs, knowledge and information centers are clearly identified; in fact, information is more willingly disseminated because others will learn the value of sharing knowledge from their experience under mentoring programs. For organizations looking to establish, change or renew their cultural values, mentoring programs reinforce those goals. For organizations seeking expansion, finding future leaders becomes less of a search and more a matter of selection.

 

Organizations that do not have mentoring programs in place, or have stagnant mentoring programs in place, run the risk of inciting sub-cultures within the organization, which mock the very existence of the company. Employees will never develop the trust in an organization that is essential to assimilating into the established culture. Paths to promotion and satisfaction will seem incoherent and partisan; the power held by leadership will seem illegitimate and contrived. The search for individual identity and relevance will become more urgent than the goals of the organization. In establishing a mentoring program, the focus should always be on the development of the protégé as a leader and a person, not a compliant employee. The moral compass needs to be pointed toward helping and personal growth; if so, the other benefits will fall into place. Even if you want a company-sponsored program, the participants need to have the trust of the organization that allows them to function autonomously. This will be best achieved by carefully selecting and training the “right” individuals to be mentors. While the protégé role should come with few restrictions for participation, mentors must be able to combine those qualities of instilling trust and confidence, with the ability to motivate, persuade and coach; as well as, manager difficult situations.  The organization should take a decidedly hands-off approach to the mentoring process once it has been established; the results will be the best indicator of success. Having a clear path to leadership and an improved sense of belonging will be its own reward.

 

No company that aspires to succeed in the modern society with its ever-changing landscape and multiplicity of cultural traditions can afford to turn a blind eye to the competitive need to acquire and sustain human talent. In my personal scenario, I believed that having someone to guide me through the maze of social, political and culture customs that organically grow within an organization over time, was the right approach. I still do. All too often, companies fall into the trap of relying on organized training to improve member production and loyalty. What they ignore is the social element of communication that not only inspires others to join, but to lead.

 

~ Richard

 

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