Mentoring Has Many Benefits, But You Can’t Leave It to Chance

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Jan 22, 2020
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Before we learned how to read and write, we were transferring knowledge through mentoring. In fact, the word mentor comes from Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus departs for the Trojan War and leaves his son in the good hands of his friend: “Mentor.”

It’s not just humans that depend on mentoring to survive but also animals. From meerkats that teach their young how to eat scorpions to falcons that drop dead prey for their young to learn how to hunt, the animal kingdom is full of mentors. So why mess with mother nature? Why not let people connect through informal mentoring channels to learn and grow just as we have been doing since the dawn of time?

For starters, the workplace today is more diverse and interconnected than ever before. We have built the largest corporations ever known to mankind. They cross generations, geographies, genders, languages, cultures and ethnicities. This melting pot of diversity is one of the reasons we have been so successful in innovating and creating significant wealth for millions, but it’s also creating more complex workplaces for us all to navigate.

The challenge with informal mentoring programs is that “leaders tend to coach and mentor their ‘own’… because they see less experienced versions of themselves in these folks.” Unfortunately, this means that growth and advancement opportunities tend to go disproportionately to those who already have a head start. Furthermore, networking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. That introvert or first-generation college graduate may not have the same ability to navigate the complex workplace and find a mentor that will transform their career. So how do we level the playing field to bring the best and brightest out of this incredibly talented and diverse workforce?

Organizations that have formal mentoring programs are seeing success in retaining and developing their diverse and talented workforce, which leads to financial success for those talented individuals and ultimately the organization itself. By creating a formal mentoring program, organizations are modernizing their mentoring culture and leveling the playing field for all people in the diverse workforce to tap into a wealth of knowledge that can be leveraged to create a more innovative, dynamic and diverse workforce.

Here are a few things to think about before launching a formal mentorship program at your organization to ensure you’re meeting the needs of your employees and of the business.

Focus on elevating diverse talent pools

Because of our human tendency to favor people who remind us of ourselves, informal mentoring will always tend to benefit those who are similar to those already in senior level positions in the workplace. With a formal mentoring program in place that intentionally pairs mentors and mentees who are different from one another, there’s an opportunity to break this cycle and ensure all employees are able to build key relationships that could help advance their career. Organizations with successful mentoring programs focus on getting feedback from talented individuals who aren’t currently seeing advancement, skill development, etc. at the same rates as their peers. When you build a formal program centering on the needs of those who are being underserved today by informal mentoring, it’s more likely to make a real difference for both employees and the business.

Get clear on ideal outcomes for everyone involved

In addition to the obvious outcomes for mentees – whether it’s accelerating promotions, developing new skills, etc. – you want to ensure that the outcomes for mentors are also clear, compelling and well-communicated. There are also benefits for the business that will be important to track and report on to leadership. Some of the common goals of a formal mentorship program are improving employee retention, boosting employee engagement, building a diverse workforce across different job bands or accelerating promotion rates for a certain employee population. Well-managed programs can save a company millions, but if you don’t make that connection, it won’t necessarily be obvious to your executive team.

Provide milestones and guideposts

People typically embark on a mentor-mentee relationship with the best of intentions, but without some guidance, those good intentions can turn into a stalled connection, leaving one or both of the participants frustrated or disillusioned. In fact, having a poor mentoring relationship is worse than not having a mentoring connection at all. The best programs don’t seek to over-manage relationships but do provide some direction to both mentors and mentees on how to create a successful partnership that will result in a meaningful outcome. Encourage participants to set specific goals, hold each other accountable and provide regular feedback. Ensure you’re seeking feedback from both sides on how the relationship is progressing and what could be improved.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whether organizations value having a diverse and inclusive workforce or prefer to stay with the status quo. Organizations that are looking to tap into their full workforce potential understand the value of running formal mentoring programs. However, in today’s modern age of complex organizations, intense talent wars, digital transformation and fierce competition, organizations that are unable to evolve their mentoring programs with the fast-changing market landscape will struggle to innovate and retain their most talented people.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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