Organizations Can’t Create Mentorships, but They Can Train Mentors

A generation ago, the word “mentor” rarely appeared in training or business literature.  These days, a Google search on mentoring will turn up thousands of articles and white papers.  There are even apps companies can use to match junior staff with potential mentors – basically the mentoring version of Tinder.

Kidding aside, there are many legitimate reasons why organizations might want to start formal mentoring programs.  A survey found that younger staff members are twice as likely (68% versus 32%) to stay with an organization for more than five years if they have a mentoring relationship with a coworker.  Mentoring also has productivity benefits, as good mentors can help young staff navigate organizational politics and keep things in perspective during times of stress.

So, what advice would we offer on the subject of mentoring?

  • If it’s mainly about performance improvement, then you need coaches – not mentors.  Mentors seek to understand their mentee’s desires and potential and guide them towards professional growth and personal fulfillment. The relationship unfolds at the mentee’s preferred pace, and has nothing to do with hitting the organization’s performance targets – at least not directly.

    Coaching relationships are different. Either an individual wants to improve their skills and seeks out a coach, or the organization decides they need to improve and assigns them a coach. The coach leads the coachee through a predefined program, ideally tailored a bit to the coachee’s specific needs. So long as the coach’s teaching style is a good match for the coachee’s learning style, they don’t have to connect on a personal level.

  • Accept that mentors don’t work for the organization. While there are good reasons for organizations to promote mentoring among their staff, any benefit to the organization will be incidental. Mentoring relationships aren’t something an organization can control: true mentors will place their mentee’s personal growth and fulfillment before the organization’s agenda, every time.

    When I worked in the trenches of a massive educational publishing corporation, I had a mentor who taught me a lot about creating interactive learning content. But the skill development isn’t what made her a mentor – she earned that distinction when she told me “Our team has so many great ideas that this company will never invest in. That’s why I’m interviewing elsewhere – and you should, too.”

    Today, I still consider her a mentor, while that particular division of the company we worked for no longer exists.

  • You can’t force mentorships, but you can prepare mentors. Rather than awkwardly pushing staff into arranged mentorships, organizations should train experienced staff to recognize mentoring opportunities and develop essential skills such as active listening and empathy. Then it’s a matter of having experienced and junior staff work together more often, day-to-day, to increase the likelihood that mentoring relationships will develop naturally.

If your organization is dealing with these issues, or any other learning-related challenges, please contact Sonata Learning.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.