Mentorship as a concept gets a lot of attention and praise in the corporate world — and deservedly so. Pairing less experienced employees with more established executives for coaching and development makes intuitive sense as a career-booster for mentees, and clear benefits extend to mentors and firms as a whole as well.
But even companies that truly value workplace mentoring can struggle with prioritizing and executing it effectively within their organizations. From not knowing how to start or which employees to start with, to finding it too hard to maintain when deadlines, market shifts, and everyday business get in the way, nurturing an atmosphere where mentorship can flourish can be challenging. But that’s all the more reason why establishing a culture of mentorship should be a priority. In fact, some experts believe it’s critical now more than ever.
“Given the past year of people working remotely, it’s even more important for [employees] to have a home base at work — a sense of belonging, even more so than a physical space,” stressed Ephraim Schachter, President of Schachter Consulting and author of The CSuite Accelerator Executive Coaching Leadership Curriculum.
Experts say the key to success is creating a workplace atmosphere where mentorship is not only formally practiced, but culturally essential. Here’s what they recommend.
The institutional benefits of a thriving mentorship culture can start even before employees are hired. It’s a recruiting advantage: Knowing that a mentorship program exists can be appealing to potential hires.
“It's a signal to people coming in that you want to invest in them, and get them invested in the organization,” Schachter said.
A mentoring program can also be a valuable tool for bringing newly hired employees up to speed at an accelerated pace.
“Mentees develop more quickly and productively from having access to good mentors. Good mentors impart upon them life, work, institutional, and industry insights and connections that would otherwise take years, if not a lifetime, to obtain on their own,” said Tomer Yogev, certified executive coach and cofounder of coaching consultancy The Big Joy Theory. “This faster and more effective development of employees has obvious benefits to the individual and the organization.”
“You onboard people faster,” Schachter agreed. After all, an in-house mentor can give a protégé not just general career advice, but specific insight into the culture and functioning of their new place of employment.
The benefits can extend well past a new hire’s first days and into the realm of employee retention. Mentorships “help the company retain top talent,” said Josh Rovner, organizational leadership consultant and author of Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the 10 Critical Flaws in Your Company. “If strong employees know they have true mentors they can count on to help them fulfill their careers, they will be much more loyal and likely to stay in the company. Employees who know the company cares about their growth will be more engaged and will therefore perform better,” he added.
Deciding which employees would serve as the best mentors isn’t as straightforward as looking to the top of the org chart. According to Schacher, pairing potential mentors and mentees in the same department or area can cause awkwardness, if not real friction, in the chain of command. Beyond that, it’s not always a good fit.
“It is too simple to assume that the marketing intern wishes to be mentored by the Marketing VP,” Yogev said. “They might prefer — in some cases strongly prefer — to be mentored by the CTO or someone else you would never think of pairing them with.”
Choosing which mentors to bring into the program can be as much of a career development strategy for the mentors as the mentees, Schachter pointed out. Bringing in senior staffers with potential who are looking to hone their leadership skills can make serving in the program an element of how they achieve their own development goals.
“Done well, mentorship programs help mentors learn how to mentor — and thus coach and manage — better, as well as help them gain clarity around all of the development they've experienced,” said Yogev. For the mentors, having to explain their own roles and what they’ve learned in their careers can help them clarify lessons learned while sharpening their communication skills.
“By doing so, the mentor can feel more validated in their role, and, fundamentally, become a better manager and leader for the organization,” Yogev continued. “The benefit is individual as well as organizational.”
Another element to consider adding is reverse mentorships, where more junior staffers coach their more senior coworkers, whether on specific subjects (technology, social media, and generational perspectives are popular topics) or merely in sharing perspectives.
“Even the greenest members of the workforce can be mentors to others because they have unique strengths, experiences, and perspectives to lend to someone else who could use to learn them,” said Halelly Azulay, CEO of leadership consultancy TalentGrow and author of Employee Development on a Shoestring.
Instituting a formal mentorship program is a visible sign of a company’s commitment to leadership development, but it takes work to create one that adds value for the firm as well as its employees. Schacter noted that while he’s encountered a number of mentorship programs, he “[hasn’t] always seen them done particularly well.”
The reason? Although created with the best intentions, many mentorship programs don’t set expectations and prepare both parties to meet them — and many struggle to get the kind of buy-in that makes them institutionally important. To create a lasting, fulfilling path for professional development, it's crucial that a mentorship program address both the needs of the business and the pain points that can arise throughout the process, such as time pulled from core work; burdensome commitments; or awkward, unproductive mentoring sessions.
“The remedy is that you set the parameters,” Schachter said. “You have a formal program that has a kickoff, [where leadership] explains what mentorship is, what the mentors and mentees can expect, and what are the types of things you should want to talk about [in your mentorship relationship].”
Setting expectations up front can alleviate what Schachter said was a common complaint from mentors: that unprepared and unmotivated mentees don't know what to ask or how to build a professional relationship.
"What I hear from mentors is, 'I don't need to have a meeting scheduled where they expect me to tap dance,’" said Schachter. "Many young people who receive mentoring don’t realize how valuable it is, don’t prepare enough for the meetings, and don’t take it seriously enough as the huge gift and opportunity it is."
But the training should go both ways, Yogev advised. While serving as a role model and delivering constructive feedback are often honed with leadership, other elements of the mentoring skillset — such as discussing career goals, acting as a sounding board, and coaching for career success outside of their own domain — may be new skills to master.
“Simply because a person is a CXO or SVP does not mean they know how to mentor well,” Yogev said. “So before allowing people to mentor, set up programming for them to be better at it.” Coaching 101 lessons; workshops; or sessions on well-regarded mentoring techniques such as the GROW model, Appreciative Inquiry, or others can be helpful, he added. (They can also serve as an appealing professional development incentive for mentors.)
It’s also critical that leadership walks the walk when it comes to making mentoring sessions a priority. “In order for a mentorship program to work, the company executives and leaders need to model that culture, talk about it, and encourage it,” stressed Rovner. "They need to volunteer their time to be mentors and buy into the benefits of it to the organization and its employees. This lets everyone know the company is serious about mentorship.”
Yogev agreed. “Ensure that [mentorship] meetings are happening and are being held in high regard, not constantly shifted around due to various scheduling conflicts,” he said. “Mentoring is a sacred thing and should be treated as such.”
Lastly, having a designated point person — whether in leadership, Human Resources, or otherwise — to coordinate everything goes a long way in ensuring a smooth experience in the creation, execution, and maintenance of a successful mentorship program.
“This does not have to be a full-time role,” Rovner said, “but it should be someone who has time to dedicate to making [the mentorship program] happen, as well as enough knowledge of how mentorship programs work, how the organization functions, and who the mentors and mentees are.”
And be sure to put things in writing. “It’s important to create resources or documents that clearly explain how the mentorship program works, who is involved, the roles of the mentor and mentee, and best practices for how to have mentorship conversations,” Rovner added. “The more structure you put into the program and the clearer the expectations are, the better it will be for everyone involved.”
But while a formalized mentoring program is essential, taking steps to encourage mentoring relationships outside the official program can pay off in professional growth and career development for both new employees and more seasoned executives. It also helps solidify mentorship as a cornerstone of the company culture.
Azulay said this can look like an openness to less traditional-looking mentor-mentee relationships, like group mentoring or “one-to-many” arrangements. It can also, she said, be deployed as an as-needed tool: “While most mentoring relationships last for a predetermined period of time, you can also arrange situational mentoring relationships to address a particular learning need or issue,” she suggested.
In fact, Jeffrey Brown, President of Cleveland, OH-based Big Fig Mattress, which manufactures mattresses designed for larger bodies, said mentoring should be part of everyone’s job description — older and younger employees alike.
“Everyone on your team has the potential to be a great mentor,” said Brown. “Allowing everyone to have some sort of [expertise and authority] opens so many doors for them to take the reins as leaders. And collaboration grows when everyone has more responsibility and is able to share what they know with others.”
At a time when many companies are still grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 shutdowns and working to determine how the post-pandemic future might look, launching a new mentoring initiative is an easy project to relegate to the backburner. Even for firms that embrace the benefits — the professional development payoffs, employee engagement, and even job satisfaction it can provide — adding a new project to the mix, especially one not directly related to the core business, is a big ask. But experts say all those reasons suggest this could be the best time of all.
“If you ask me, there’s never been a better time to make the argument why, despite their not being essential, mentorship programs are enormously useful,” said Schachter.
The feel-good benefits to employees of having or being a mentor are real — and so are the business upsides. “When people are feeling so dislocated, when they’re filled with anxiety, this can be a way for companies to put their metaphoric arms around their employees,” Schachter said. “Now is a great time for this.”