Mentoring 101: What’s In It for Me?

By: Nancy Ordman

This is the season when college seniors queue up for on-campus interviews, and weigh their employment options. Benefit packages can influence job decisions – not necessarily benefits like a margarita machine in the break room. Do formal mentoring programs interest millennials? Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd, writing in their book “The 2020 Workplace,” say that this cohort wants three things from their bosses: straight feedback, coaching and mentoring, and personal development.

The youngest members of the professional workplace are not alone in asking for mentors. Experienced workers who want to move into management, or switch to a different specialty, also seek out mentors. And some employers are implementing reverse mentoring, by assigning younger employees to help older ones learn how to use new technologies.

What does workplace mentoring look like? Does mentoring make a difference for recipients – and their mentors and their organizations? This article and two that will follow over the next few weeks will talk about these questions and several others that are central to the mentoring experience, such as finding a mentor and getting the most from the experience.

Source: Creative Commons, Willow Brugh

Why Do Organizations Support Mentoring?

All parties involved in a formal mentoring program – mentors, mentees, and their sponsoring organizations – reap ongoing benefits.

Mentees are the most obvious beneficiaries. A decade ago, Gartner studied the Sun Microsystems mentoring program. Among their discoveries: mentees received a salary grade change in larger numbers than their unmentored colleagues (25 percent versus five percent); mentored employees had higher retention rates (72 versus 49 percent) and were promoted five times more than their peers. In addition to these quantifiable benefits, mentees learn how better to grow careers and built networks. They also gain skills in interpersonal communication and confidence in their abilities.

Mentors also benefit from their roles. The Gartner study cited above showed that mentors were promoted six times more than their peers, a higher rate than mentees. The company retained mentors at a rate20 percent higher than non-mentor peers. Mentoring is often, and correctly, viewed as a way for a more senior person to “give back” to a profession and an organization. Mentors also develop keen listening skills and stronger interpersonal skills. They can learn more about the part of the organization where their mentees work, building new relationships along the way.

Some of the benefits that accrue to an organization are cited above: better retention rates and effective leadership development. A mentoring program can be an effective recruitment tool; both current and prospective employees see that the company values its employees and is willing to invest in them. This in turn cultivates company loyalty.

Mentoring: Not the Same as Coaching

Most people in the workforce will benefit from mentoring and coaching but for different reasons and at different points in their careers. Understanding the differences between the two enables an informed choice

Workplace mentoring is a long-term open-ended one-on-one relationship focused on supporting the growth and development of the mentee. The mentor is a source of wisdom, teaching, and support, not someone who observes and advises on specific actions or behavioral changes in daily work. The mentor creates a safe place for the both mentor and mentee to discuss work-related and personal topics; trust grows over time.

Coaching is typically a goal-oriented short relationship with finite duration. The coach and the coached address specific issues, often to develop new skills or to eliminate unproductive behaviors. Specific goals and a timeline for achieving those goals are set. Although most coaching is one-on-one, in cases where the goal is mastering a new skill, a small group can work satisfactorily.

Mentoring

Coaching

Focus

Development-driven, strategic; more career-development oriented

Performance-driven, related to specific learning goals

Length of time

Long-term and open-ended; can last after active mentoring

Short-term

Orientation

Relationship-oriented

Task-oriented

Structure

Carefully designed to spell out purpose of mentorship and

Structured as necessary to achieve task

Manager involvement

Individual’s manager cannot be the mentor

Immediate manager can be the coach or instructor

Agenda

Set by mentee

Set by coach

The Brefi Group sums up the differences this way: "A coach has some great questions for your answers; a mentor has some great answers for your questions."

Types of Mentoring Relationships

Purposes of most workplace mentoring relationships fall into three broad areas: career development, functional expertise, and diversity and inclusion. Career development runs the gamut from introducing a new employee to a company, to leadership development, to preparing a successor for promotion to the C-level suite.  Functional mentoring could help an employee change specialties – from marketing to sales, for example – or to make a deep dive into her current specialty. Diversity covers the minority or interest groups, like women or people of color.

Growth in interest in mentoring has spurred the development of structured formal mentoring programs blessed by corporate management. Today 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies have some sort of formal program that matches mentors with mentees and provides guidance on establishing the relationship. The details of formal mentoring programs vary. All of them should include a mentoring partnership agreement between mentor and mentee, training for each party, resources like sample mentoring plans, and defined expectations for mentoring outcomes. Several firms offer software packages that streamline startup and management of mentoring programs.

Informal mentoring relationships might look similar to their more formal counterparts. Management could support them by allowing mentors and mentees to use work time to meet, for example. Usually a prospective mentee will have to find a willing mentor and negotiate details of the relationship. Training and other resources probably will not be available unless the participants look for them. Informal relationships can be more effective than a formal mentorship set up via a human-resources-blessed process; this author describes his personal experience with both formal and informal situations. And the lack of structure can be easier for participants to manage.

Not all mentoring is one-on-one. Peer mentors provide support for each other, often in a small group. Such groups might form among new employees, providing a safe place for them to share frustrations or triumphs or useful information. In other peer groups, one member will share specialized knowledge. Peer mentoring typically requires fewer corporate resources, since it is informal and self-organizing. It is also a good way for members to learn how to function well as a team.

The next installment: How to get the most from a mentoring relationship.