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two women mentoring about company culture

From a Mentoring Program to a Mentoring Culture

Your organization probably sponsored a mentoring program at one time or another. But there’s a good chance the program ended. What caused it to fail? Was it a lack of dedicated mentors? Or indifferent mentees? Most likely, the root cause was that you had a mentoring program, not a mentoring culture.

Why Mentoring Programs Fail

Mentoring programs are implemented with great intentions. They may be designed to develop your top employees. Or they might be targeted at women and people of color who need a hand up.

Done properly, mentorship encourages a sense of belonging in the organization. It fosters information sharing, dialogue across diverse employees, and personal growth for both parties. A Gartner study done at Sun Microsystems found much higher retention rates for mentees (72 percent) and mentors (69 percent) than other employees who did not participate in the mentoring program (49 percent).

However, programs often become “check the box” exercises if both mentor and mentee aren’t invested or don’t have good chemistry. Some research shows that ineffective mentoring programs do more harm than good. No mentoring at all is better than such initiatives.

A Forbes post provides the following advice for establishing a successful program:

“Begin with your organization’s aspirations for the program firmly in mind. You should design it with specific goals that align with your overall business objectives. Being able to communicate the “why” behind the program, rather than just the “how,” will help in educating your people about the positive role it can play in terms of your overall strategy.”

Start with the Right Mentors

Good mentors are not a function of their tenure or title. They don’t have to be the mentee’s superior; peers can also be great mentors. They don’t have to be in the same functional area. However, they must be leaders who believe in creating new leaders.

Wharton professor Katherine Klein says,

“Mentors also should have an understanding of the organization’s values, culture, and norms so they can pass these along to mentees. The mentor should be sensitive to the mentee’s needs and wishes, and enhance the mentee’s career potential, while simultaneously looking for ways the mentee’s potential can benefit the organization.”

Some leaders may not want to invest in younger workers. Since many people don’t stay very long with one employer, they may feel it’s not worth the effort.

Mentors must be willing to spend time getting to know the other person. The relationship will not succeed unless they develop a rapport, a relationship based on trust. They must find common ground as two individuals, not as a boss and a subordinate. Only then will both parties open up to each other and share their experiences.

Mentors should be open to listening rather than only giving advice. Sharing their career experience and offering suggestions for career development is an important element of what they bring to the table. The best mentoring relationships also include discussion of life outside of work. Good mentors unlock not only their mentees’ strengths but also their passions. They might counsel leaving the organization if the mentee cannot find delight in what they do.

If there isn’t a good fit between mentor and mentee, choose a new mentor. Mentees may prefer finding an advisor on their own rather than having someone assigned.

Add the Right Mentees

Mentoring relationships are not just for new hires and high-potential junior staffers. All employees can benefit if they are willing to invest their time and energy. Employees should understand that they should contribute as well as receive from the relationship. There are skills and coping mechanisms that mentees can share with their mentor. Reverse mentorships match employees of different age groups who may be able to teach each other tech skills or provide institutional knowledge.

Unfortunately, some people who need mentoring decline the opportunity. They may feel they are already successful and don’t need help. They may be insecure and nervous about interacting with an executive. Often, the employees who need mentoring the most decline. Research reported by Jason Sandvik, Richard Saouma, Nathan Seegert, and Christopher T. Stanton made a case for mandatory mentoring of new hires, as employees in their study who opted out fell behind compared to peers who were mentored.

Provide Structure

Mentoring arrangements need rules of engagement. The parties must determine who initiates meetings, how often they are held, and who prepares the agenda. They may add guidelines around punctuality and topics to discuss or avoid. Many mentors insist that the mentee drive the logistics and discussion.

Hybrid work environments provide a challenge for many mentoring partnerships. A Harvard Business Review article pointed out that virtual mentoring,

“may require more effort to establish trust and rapport in the relationship, since the full range of nonverbal cues and vocal nuance may be missing. As with many online collaborations, virtual mentorship can also suffer from email overwhelm and screen fatigue, which can cause the relationship to become more task-oriented and expedience-driven, rather than focused on relational support.”

However, virtual relationships can provide significant benefits. Videoconferencing might be a solution for men and women who worry about getting together in the post-MeToo world. Employees with disabilities and those in different locations may find it easier to meet online.

Or, No Structure

Professors and authors W. Brad Johnson and David G. Smith advocate “mentors-of-the-moment.” This describes simple employee interactions that can provide much of the same benefits as mentoring. Rather than a structured meeting, these are coffee-station, after-the-meeting, passing-in-the-hallway conversations.

The objective is for leaders to notice, learn the names of, and engage new or junior team members. They might ask about what the employee is working on, check in to see how a new role is progressing, or offer to serve as a sounding board. They could highlight the staffer’s delivery of a successful project.

These encounters provide the affirmation employees seek from their superiors. It helps them get on leadership’s radar when promotional opportunities arise. It also alleviates concerns about finding a proper fit between mentor and mentee.

Build It into Your Culture

Mentoring provides significant benefits to new hires who are learning the ropes of an organization. It can greatly enhance the career path for those who don’t have access to traditional networks. It strengthens employee performance and prepares them for advancement in the company. This enhances succession planning and encourages mentees to seek out broader developmental networks. Importantly, mentorship improves employee engagement and retention.

Mentoring relationships also help the mentor feel better about their job. A study of police officers who mentor junior officers found that both parties benefited from a chance to exchange ideas on dealing with job-related stress. Wharton’s Klein observed,

“Mentors know more about what goes on in lower levels when they deal with mentees. Junior people can provide information to mentors…. [They] are up on the latest technology and knowledge. So it’s an interactive process: Mentors and protégés become co-learners.”

While there are clear organizational benefits to sponsoring mentoring opportunities, they thrive when they are more than just a one-off program. Organizations where mentoring is embedded into their culture include those that are characterized by:

  • Generous listening. Employees listen to understand one another rather than simply listening to respond. Ideally, leaders have an “open door” policy where employees feel comfortable dropping in to discuss concerns or vet ideas.

  • Speaking courageously. Employees say what needs to be said in a way that helps to make progress. Leaders provide honest coaching that employees take to heart.

  • Showing meaningful appreciation. Employees regularly extend recognition in all directions throughout the organization. Leaders acknowledge their teams’ contributions formally and informally. They point out specifics of what was most impactful or what they may have learned from their work.

  • Collaboration and sharing information. Employees think about who else needs to know information rather than hoarding it for themselves. They value transparency, collaboration, and communication.

  • Thinking team first. Employees think about how to help each other succeed. They aren’t focused on themselves or their agenda. They win when the team wins.

  • Investing in relationships. Employees seek to understand what makes others tick and what’s important to them. Leaders get to know the names, skills, and concerns of people on their teams.
  • Embracing diverse perspectives. Employees are open to learning from others, regardless of their job roles, tenure, or age. New hires learn from more experienced co-workers. Longer-tenured employees are receptive to ideas pitched by newer workers.

As with all desired behaviors, leadership needs to reinforce this culture. Employees must be accountable for their support of and participation in mentoring activities. Johnson and Smith provide the following suggested questions on employee evaluations:

  • What day-to-day actions are you taking to foster a mentoring culture?
  • How are you holding your direct reports accountable?
  • What metrics do you have in place to track progress?
  • Who has expressed interest in and support for you and your career aspirations?
  • Is there someone at work you could turn to for a caring conversation if you encounter personal or professional problems?

When mentoring is part of the organization’s culture, employees become more loyal and committed. They see that management cares about them and their careers. They trust that leadership has their best interests at heart. And the resulting engagement and retention exceed that of any short-term feel-good program.