The Growing Power of Mentoring

Suddenly, the word mentoring is on everyone’s lips. In the United States, organisations in all sectors are breathing new life into a concept that had been seen as a management fad of the 80s. In the UK, the Government has called a working party to co-ordinate mentoring in a wide variety of community schemes, including a new venture to provide thousands of schoolchildren with personal mentors. In Eire, thousands of difficult to employ young people are being coaxed into the working environment through an ambitious mentoring scheme.

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In Scandinavia and Western Europe, companies are experimenting with mentoring for the benefit of a wide variety of employees, from new recruits to people approaching retirement. At the World Bank in Washington, mentoring is addressing the intercultural tensions inherent in an organisation of highly talented, culturally diverse people. Wherever you look around the world, mentoring is becoming part of the solution to issues of community or business development. In Australia, employers in both the public and private sectors have launched innovative programmes.

Among them, the Education Board of the State of Victoria, which has achieved great results in opening up senior positions in education to women. Executives across the country have suddenly found they can’t do without a mentor to guide and challenge them on how they do their jobs. What’s the reason for this sudden upsurge of interest and activity in a concept that has been around for a good 20 years? Several drivers have come together. Among them: Increasing emphasis on self development

For a variety of mostly good reasons, organisations are attempting to place the responsibility for managing career and personal development squarely on the shoulders of the individual employee. In theory, at least, this benefits both parties. The employee is empowered to take more control of what happens to them in a career that is less and less likely to be with just one or two employers, and the organisation is able to concentrate its HR resources on creating opportunities for learning rather than sending people on courses. This broad consensus is an integral part of the new psychological contract between employees and employer.

The return of people management responsibilities to line managers The history of industrial relations in the-mid 20th century is one of increasing transfer of power from the line manager to Human Resources. That trend is well and truly in reverse as managers are encouraged to take on greater and greater responsibility for developing the talent in their teams. A major problem for many companies is that the managers have operated so long under the previous rules that they have neither the skills nor the commitment for this time-consuming activity.

Flatter hierarchies rely more on relationships As organisations become simpler on paper, they become more complex in reality. Today’s large organisation typically has half the number of layers of its counterpart 15 years ago. New structures – less stable, less visible and often much more powerful – emerge between and across the layers. The most common forms are networks (low in shared purpose, but typically wide and diffuse in membership) and virtual teams (high in shared purpose, but relatively narrow and well-defined in membership) TAKE IN DIAGRAM

To navigate through the complexities of the informal organisation, people need help. In a recent study of high performing companies, we identified that one of the reasons CEOs appointed from outside so often failed was that – unless the company was in crisis – they entered with very little understanding of the informal structures. Unable to make things happen through subtle tweaks of the informal organisation, they resorted to extensive changes through the formal systems. In effect, this is akin to hiring a TV repairman equipped only with a hammer and nails. The same principles apply at all levels.

To fit into the organisation, to feel valued and to contribute rapidly, people need to understand the collective thinking and develop their own networks of influence and information. Mentoring has proven its ability to do this over and over again. For example, one recent study from the United States shows that new insurance agents with mentors outperform those without by 20% in their first year. The need to retain scarce talent The CEO of ABB was recently reported as saying that the critical issue for businesses in the developed world over the next few years will not be knowledge creation, but knowledge retention.

Controlling the leakage of talent is becoming increasingly difficult as career opportunities become more important to employees than loyalty to a current employer. Again, the track record of mentoring in helping with these issues is good. At Smithkline Beecham, the finance department had a turnover of staff last year of over 25% not out of the ordinary for the sector and the function. Yet only 2% of its mentored staff left. Another US study recently examined people’s intention to quit their current job over the course of the coming year.

Of the population in general, 35% had itchy feet, but only 16% of mentees. Emphasis on creating learning cultures The notion of the learning culture has galvanised organisations into re-examining the balance between task activities and learning activities. One of the simplest and most effective ways of knowledge sharing is via developmental alliances – of which mentoring is the most powerful genre. The development of more organisationally effective processes of formal mentoring The debate over the virtues of informal verus formal (organised) mentoring has been going on for some years.

Several US studies have suggested that formal mentoring (where the organisation seeks to manage the process of selection and matching to a greater or lesser degree) is less effective than informal. However, these results have not been replicated in Europe, where a very different model of mentoring has evolved. Indeed, the evidence suggests that informal mentoring tends to lead to less effective relationships, from a developmental point of view, and reinforces problems of gender and racial disadvantage.

(Middle manager mentors tend to choose as mentees people who remind them of themselves. ) The consensus within European organisations is that effective mentoring schemes provide a formal framework, within which mentors and mentees can develop a relationship that is at the same time both informal and purposeful. The traditional US model of mentoring is heavily based on the power of the mentor, and is a hands-on relationship, in which the mentor acts on behalf of the – for example, by putting their name forward for challenging assignments.

In effect, the role is a combination of guru and advocate. Among the many problems with this approach is that it is more career-focused than developmentally focussed (so may have fewer benefits for the organisation), that it promotes only one-way learning, and that it encourages cloning The European model, which is also emerging in North America, places the emphasis on development and avoids any form of sponsorship or advocacy. It aims to increase the mentee’s self-reliance and encourages learning by both parties.

Almost all of the current innovative and impactful mentoring schemes are built around this model, which fits more easily into organisation’s desires to make people more responsible for their own learning and career management. The dynamics of mentoring Of course, mentoring has been around a long time. Every primer on the subject refers back to good old Mentor, the wise counsellor with whom Odysseus left his young son Telemachus. (What they don’t usually say is that Mentor himself was actually pretty poor at the job – it was left to the goddess Diana to fulfil the role, sometimes by impersonating Mentor.

Diana exhibited a mixture of nurturing and challenging behaviours that typify both masculine and feminine management styles. ) This balance of stretching and nurturing is increasingly observed to be essential to performance management, as, for example, studies by Microsoft of its most and least effective line managers have shown. It is also one of the two dimensions that define the one-to-one helping relationship in general. Effective mentors move between stretching (challenging) and nurturing (supporting) in tune with the needs of the mentee.

The other key defining dimension is directiveness – who is driving the relationship and the discussions within it? Within traditional US sponsorship style mentoring, the mentor is clearly in charge, most of the time. But within developmental mentoring, while management of the process passes back and forth between mentor and mentee, ownership of the learning rests firmly with the mentee. One way of defining mentoring, therefore, is by its boundaries. The behaviours a mentor adopts draw upon a variety of other roles.

Coaching, for example, is a relatively directive means of stretching someone (the coach is in charge). But mentors share with coaches key behaviours such as being a critical friend, showing the mentee how to do something, and challenging their beliefs and assumptions. Similarly, mentors share with workplace counsellors a concern to help people plan their development and career paths, to listen, empathise and be a sounding board. They do not, however, adopt some of the other activities of a counsellor, such as behavioural therapy – even if they have the competence to do so – because that is out of role.