Mentoring: Investing in the Present and the Future

POSTED: Jul. 12, 2017

Program ParticipantDoes mentoring really live up to the hype? Mentoring has been formalized into programs, policies and initiatives; repackaged as one of many silver bullets. While there are no silver bullets, mentoring really is crucial for individuals and organizations. It’s been put into place to deal with a multitude of issues, but it’s not new, it’s just been lost for a while. Mentoring was something that used to be done informally. Upper management or an older, more experienced employee would take a young and promising new hire under his/her wing. These mentors were paying it forward, showing the next generation the ropes and advocating for their success.

In recent times this informal process has fallen by the way side for a number of reasons such as busier schedules, higher turnover and people becoming more isolated. Also, without organizationally implemented mentoring programs not everyone was mentored, which meant not every employee was realizing their full potential and talent was slipping through the cracks. While I don’t believe that a formal mentoring plan needs to be put into place in every situation, a mentoring culture can be cultivated and often a formal program is a great way to get things started.

With the younger generation becoming the dominant force in the workplace by 2020, mentoring is more important now than ever before. There’s a talent shortage coming as the older generation leaves the workforce taking their years of experience with them. On the other hand, the younger generation is coming of age in what’s becoming a ‘gig economy’ with high turnover rates. This means they’re not afraid to leave a company for greener pastures.   

What is Mentoring?

The benefits are clear, but what is mentoring? The mentor plays a variety of different roles that help the mentee develop personally and professionally, while also being critical for the health of the organization.

Mentoring speaks directly to the two main issues of the looming talent shortage:

1. It’s a means to download knowledge and perspective that has been gained over a successful career and

2. It keeps the younger generation around and engaged because they are hungry for that knowledge and development opportunity.

In addition, when a company invests in its employees it not only develops the talent pool, but it also makes the employees more likely to engage, making them more productive and efficient. Mentoring also helps upper management identify rising stars that can be groomed from an early age to be the future leaders of the company.

Mentoring Roles

Relational – Mentoring is first and foremost a relationship built on a deep level of trust. Your boss or immediate supervisor may not be the most suitable mentor because the relationship would either hinder work or the mentoring. The mentoring relationship is far closer to a personal relationship than a professional one, where the trust built allows the mentors to challenge and critique their mentees in ways that help them grow. This is a relationship where mentors get to pay it forward and give back.

Coach – A mentor isn’t a coach, but he or she does need to wear that hat at times. Coaches deal with technical skills and while this isn’t their main concern, a mentor can help. Coaching can be especially helpful for mentees from the younger generation who are new to the field and their mentors can help them learn how to channel their academic knowledge into practical results.

Bridge – As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and especially in the business world that’s true. Networking is incredibly important for gaining clients and promotions. Mentors can be excellent bridges that give their mentees access to networks that would normally be beyond their reach. This can fast track their mentees’ careers by highlighting their talent to others in the field.

Adviser/Counselor – Mentors, along with advising on some of the technical aspects of the job, should also advise on some of the more abstract and personal aspects of their mentee’s career. This can be as simple as helping the mentee adjust to the culture of the company he or she is working in or as complex as career planning. Also, the support of a counselor in stressful and difficult times cannot be underestimated. The younger generation is graduating college into a very uncertain world and facing the very real and stressful difficulties of the workplace for the first time. Having someone they trust who will be honest with them and support them is invaluable for their resilience and success.

Critic – Mentors are not just a shoulder to cry on, the younger generation has plenty of those and they don’t particularly want them. People learn through constructive criticism. Interestingly the younger generation is wary of positive feedback after years of participation trophies. Often they don’t trust positive feedback until they’ve seen that the person is willing to honestly critique their work with negative feedback. The ability to give truly constructive criticism, though, comes out of trust. If a mentee trusts his or her mentor, the mentee might feel ashamed of a mistake because he or she was hoping to impress the mentor, but won’t be mad or upset. Instead, the mentee will likely apologize and thank the mentor for the advice.

Challenger – People also learn what they are capable of and grow through challenges and many of the members of the younger generation are eager for a challenge. Often their issue with work is not being challenged enough. This is also an opportunity for the mentor to help build the mentee’s confidence. The Mentor can show the mentee he or she is capable of through a challenge with something out of his or her comfort zone. When a mentor believes that an employee is capable of meeting a challenge it builds the person’s confidence, which makes the mentee more likely to succeed. This helps the mentee see his or her potential and learn what he or she is truly capable of.

Advocate – One of the most important roles that a mentor can fulfill is that of an advocate. Just like networking, a mentor has connections that the employee doesn’t, and can use those to help with advancements and opportunities that he or she might not otherwise get. That’s not to say undeserving ones, but it means when a top-level manager asks his staff who they think should take on the new client or project, a mentor can be an invaluable advocate to not only put their mentee’s name forward, but really go to bat for the individual too.

The breadth and depth of the role of mentor often leads to a very close life-long relationship. The mentor has to truly have the best interests of the mentee at heart. Mentoring is a way for the mentor to give back in a very philanthropic way. The personal dimensions of this relationship makes it difficult to institutionalize, but even without formal programs there are ways to help mentors and mentees to find each other. Much of it comes down to being intentional both as a mentor and a mentee. If you’re at a meeting or company event and you find yourself naturally looking up to a person, go start a conversation. And in the same context if you see some real potential in a young employee, introduce yourself and see if you can help the person along his or her career path.

Mentoring is a powerful tool that works on a number of levels that not only help the mentee, but the company and mentor as well. The mentors gain from the personal satisfaction of giving back, but they also gain by being exposed to new ideas and new perspectives from members of the younger generation. The younger generation tends to be more tech savvy and can help upper-level management leverage new tools and recognize new opportunities. Some companies have implemented what they’ve called reverse mentoring, but even without the official title this can and should happen even in classical mentoring situations. It reinforces the relationship and keeps it more informal, while boosting the mentee’s confidence.

This is just one more, out of a long list of the benefits of mentoring, which leaves you with the question: What are you going to do to encourage mentoring at your organization? The organization that can create a mentoring culture will be able to weather the coming storm of the looming talent shortage. That organization will be an innovative magnet for up and coming talent, who will be engaged, equipped and motivated to keep your organization at the leading edge of the industry.