Mentoring: How Does it Work and Who Should be One?

by Thiago Leite - November 28, 2018

Experience is a powerful resource that isn’t always easy to quantify. While some companies hire for potential value over previous experience, the deep knowledge gleaned from years within a role or organization is incredibly valuable. Millennials are now entering intermediate and senior level positions, and will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025. Mentoring is one way to prepare millennial employees for leadership positions and guide them through their career development. And it’s gaining popularity: 71% of Fortune 500 companies now offer formal mentoring programs to their employees.

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Mentoring can serve many purposes. With a specific goal in mind, mentoring programs can be tailored to address organizational weaknesses or empower certain employees. Diversity mentorships focus on the development of employees from underrepresented communities, while reverse mentoring gives junior employees the opportunity to teach more senior employees about technology and social media. High potential mentoring links up top performing junior employees with experienced employees that can help them meet their fullest potential.

Young employees want to be mentored. Millennials entered the workforce at the end of the recession, and have since experienced unstable job security and career-hopping as a result. Mentorships give millennial employees the personal attention they need to develop within your company, instead of looking for growth opportunities externally. Millennials that plan on staying with their employer for over five years are twice as likely to have a mentor (68%) than not (32%).

How Does Mentoring Really Work?

Mentoring can be highly structured–with formalized plans for preparation, meeting, and closure, all while tracking success–or it can be loosely defined. In either case, it is helpful to start with a goal. Both at the beginning of a mentorship and as it progresses, if a mentee identifies a few areas that they would like to improve or new skills they would like to develop, they should let their mentor know so that they can focus their attention on those topics.

Mentoring can be a little like therapy, in that conversations between the mentor and mentee can be about anything. Personal issues can affect professional performance and discussing topics that affect both personal and professional spheres with an experienced veteran (ie, work-life balance) could be reassuring.

In a mentoring relationship, a mentor provides guidance, but not instruction, on what steps an employee should take to meet their desired goal. A mentee should make their own decisions, informed by the experience of their mentor. A mentor is there to help the mentee on their own journey. A mentor helps a mentee to review their situation through a process of reflection, asking questions, signposting, challenge, advice, and feedback.

Why do millennials want a mentor? A junior employee might seek out a mentor to improve their personal performance, to learn more about a different role, or to gain insight on how to work through a challenging period of time. With an outside observer assessing their strengths and weaknesses, a mentee might discover skills they didn’t know they possessed and solutions they might not have arrived at on their own.

While you might think that junior employees could ask for guidance from friends and family, it might not be that simple. These confidantes likely don’t know how the employee’s personality presents itself at work, or know much about their professional field. Their perspective is also coloured by their extensive personal history with the employee, so they would be unable to offer unbiased, objective advice on how to tackle a specific situation.

5 qualities to look for in a Mentor

Some personalities are more suited to mentoring than others. There may be experienced, high-performing senior employees that don’t have the soft skills to guide a junior employee through a difficult, emotionally exhausting situation. In fact, research has shown that poor mentoring experiences can lead to lasting physical and psychological effects.

Experts in mentoring program design will tell you that the hardest hurdle is always matching mentors to mentees. While software has been developed to match likeminded junior and senior employees based on shared characteristics (not unlike a dating site), it’s not a perfect science. That being said, identifying employees that are naturally suited to mentoring is a good first step in establishing a mentoring program.
When you look around your office to gauge who would be a good fit as a mentor, keep this checklist in mind.

A good mentor listens

A good mentor is able to listen, remember, and recall details that their mentee shares with them. A few conversational stumbles could easily lead mentees to believe that their mentor isn’t really paying attention to them or taking their situation seriously. Active listening is crucial to the mentor-mentee relationship, as it is the basis for guidance, insight, and development. If you notice a senior employee that regularly asks you what you’re doing on the weekend, and remembers to ask a follow up question on Monday, chances are they’re an attentive listener.

A good mentor is open-minded

A mentor shouldn’t be judgemental. A successful mentor-mentee relationship relies on a mentee feeling comfortable with sharing their struggles with their mentor. If a mentor, in their position of authority, condescends or diminishes an employee’s issue, that employee will be reluctant to confide in them again. An ideal mentor is open-minded enough to roll with whatever problem they are presented with. They accept that, while a junior employee might come to them with a problem borne out of their inexperience, they will still approach it delicately and with compassion.

A good mentor manages their time well

Mentoring takes time and progresses in stages. Mentees won’t feel comfortable divulging their concerns and struggles with a senior employee overnight. The mentor-mentee relationship is developed with regular interactions over an extended period of time. A mentor must be able to commit to spending time with a junior employee without compromising their own output. A good mentor can be trusted to manage their time effectively. They meet deadlines, plan ahead, and can give advance notice if their work is delayed. Mentoring also requires dedication: if a mentor reschedules meeting after meeting with their mentee, the relationship will suffer. A mentor has to feel comfortable fitting a long-term commitment to another person’s growth into their own work schedule.

A good mentor is empathetic

A mentor has to be able to see themselves in their mentee’s shoes. A mentor teaches a mentee how to navigate their job in the real world, by sharing insights and learnings from their own experience. A mentor has to understand their mentee’s work in order to understand the magnitude and complexity of their problems. If possible, a mentor should work in a related field–but it doesn’t have to be the same position. While an accountant might not learn much from a graphic designer, an HR employee and a Sales executive could commiserate over being an external-facing ambassador for the company. This is why mentor matching can be such a difficult, flawed process–a shared understanding is the bedrock of a successful match. A mentor cares about helping a mentee overcome their challenges because they’ve been there, too.

A good mentor is connected

Most great opportunities come from meeting the right person at the right time. Social, well-connected mentors can help junior employees find the appropriate person to contact in multiple departments to get something done. They can even help employees fast-track their careers by introducing them to other senior employees looking to hire. If an experienced employee is a social butterfly, with friends across the company, they could potentially be beneficial to a junior. This type of person might visit various desks every morning for a quick chat to start their day. They might also plan birthday parties and team outings for their colleagues.

There is no one-size-fits-all mentoring program. How you structure your program–whether it’s formal or informal, one-on-one or in a group, open-ended or time-limited–depends on the goals and values of your company. It is normal and perfectly fine to make adjustments as you learn more about what works and what doesn’t. What matters most is a genuine effort and commitment on the part of management to the growth and nurturing of its staff. Employees will accept an awkward learning curve as long as it is out of a sincere concern for their development.

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