Business Mentoring 101: What It Is, Why It Matters, And What’s Involved in Setting Up a Program

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Business Mentoring 101

When we listen to or read about successful business people, from GE’s Jack Welch to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, we often hear them mention and thank the mentors they had along their journeys to greatness. In some ways, mentoring sounds like a magical thing, something the business fairy sprinkles over worthy subjects. But the concept of providing counsel and guidance to others has a long and storied history. In fact, the term “mentoring” derives from The Odyssey, where Mentor served as an advisor to Telemachus, Odysseus’s son.

All that said, what exactly is business mentoring and just how effective is it? Are there different types of mentoring, and, if so, what should your organization consider? This post will attempt to answer some of these questions.

Why Business Mentoring?
While it can be challenging to always quantify whether a mentoring relationship is successful (e.g. how do you measure things like “increased confidence”?), some studies and statistics do exist and are encouraging. Many in the mentoring field often point to a Sun Microsystems study conducted in 2006. The study compared the career progress of 1000 employees over a 5-year period, and the results showed that those who participated in a mentoring program experienced many more benefits than those who did not. An article in Forbes that talks about this study notes, “Both mentors and mentees were approximately 20% more likely to get a raise than people who did not participate in the mentoring program” and “25% of mentees and 28% of mentors received a raise – versus only 5% of managers who were not mentors.”

Mentoring can also help reduce employee turnover, as this article in the Harvard Business Review notes: “One of the most critical elements in retaining great people is effective mentoring.” By investing in mentoring, you empower senior-level employees (who serve as mentors) and bolster junior-level employees who typically welcome (and thrive from) the increased guidance, support, and insight that mentoring provides.

How is Mentoring Different from Coaching?
Mentoring is relational, while coaching is functional. Coaching focuses on developing a specific skill, such as proficiency in Excel or public speaking, while a mentoring relationship focuses on professional development as a whole. Some coaching may take place during the mentoring relationship, but that’s a byproduct rather than the goal. As this article in Forbes states, “Mentoring focuses on the individual and the conversation transcends more broadly into the general work life.”

What Makes for an Effective Mentoring Program?
The keys to a successful mentoring program include oversight, training and guidance, and the embracing of a mentoring spirit throughout the organization.

Mentoring programs typically operate under Human Resources or Training and Diversity departments. For a program to be effective, it’s essential that the department leaders embrace mentoring and take some time to learn about it. The good news? Many online resources exist, including training for mentoring program managers and training for mentors and mentees about to enter programs. Just do a search on “business mentoring” in Google or on Amazon, and you’ll find plenty of these resources (and some are free).

It’s important for the whole organization to embrace the mentoring concept, but especially upper management. This might mean allowing time during work hours for mentors and mentees to meet, or it might mean providing funds for training. This support will not go unnoticed by employees. A company that invests in its people often ends up having happier, more loyal, and more productive employees as a result, which can only help a company’s bottom line.

What Types of Mentoring “Models” Can You Choose From?
Various mentoring models exist. Formal, one-to-one programs match a mentor and mentee who typically work together for nine months to a year. Group mentoring involves having one mentor for a small group of mentees. Self-directed mentoring is an informal mentoring model where a gung-ho mentee who understands the benefits of mentoring goes out and finds a mentor on his or her own (either within or outside of the company).

As the business landscape changes, other mentoring models form to adapt to these changes. Reverse mentoring is one such model that’s growing in popularity, especially with millennials. An article titled “Reverse Mentoring Cracks Workplace” in The Wall Street Journal notes, “In an effort to school senior executives in technology, social media and the latest workplace trends, many businesses are pairing upper management with younger employees in a practice known as reverse mentoring. The trend is taking off at a range of companies, from tech to advertising.”

The model you choose will depend on a variety of factors, including the number of mentors/mentees interested in a program and the amount of support you’re getting from upper management. A company whose upper management doesn’t embrace the mentoring concept just yet might do better promoting a self-directed program (and keeping track of results, which can serve as “evidence” to upper management that mentoring can be effective/helpful). If you have more mentees than you do mentors, a group program might make sense. There’s no right or wrong answer; develop a program that works with your people and their specific needs and the resources you have available.

Do you use business mentoring in your organization? What’s the experience been like for program participants and for your business? Share in the comments.

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