After five decades of mentoring relationship research, the evidence is irrefutable: people who have strong mentors accrue a host of professional benefits, including more rapid advancement, higher salaries, greater organizational commitment, stronger identity, and higher satisfaction with both job and career. They also see personal benefits, such as better physical health and self-esteem, ease of work-life integration, and strong–er relational skills. At its best, mentoring can transform lives and careers while bolstering retention and maximizing employee potential.
It is little wonder that prospective employees now prioritize the availability of mentoring in choosing an employer. More than 70% of Fortune 500 companies offer mentoring programs of some sort. However, there is little evidence these programs are having broad impact. A recent study of 3,000 professionals across industries reveals that only about half have ever had any mentoring in their careers and, among those who have, only 25% were formally assigned mentors. Most mentoring relationships continue to evolve organically. Perhaps more disheartening, data on the outcomes of formal programs is at best mixed: while some employees assigned mentors report tangible relationship outcomes, a significant number report little benefit, let alone much meaningful engagement.
If there is a single, consistent Achilles heel in organizational mentoring structures, it is marginal mentoring. Marginal or mediocre mentoring may be a consequence of assigning mentors who are too busy, disinterested, dysfunctional, or simply lack competence in the role. Prospective mentors often are randomly selected or told to participate. Leaders fail to give resources to, evaluate, or reward mentoring. With no meaningful incentives attached, it is justifiably seen as an onerous add-on duty, a thankless distraction from real work leading to pay and advancement.
What’s more, too often program leaders erroneously assume that any successful manager can mentor effectively, with minimal (if any) training, and that the art of mentoring is innate or easy to acquire. Since so many never had mentors themselves, they lack mental maps for how it is done well. Evidence indicates that poor mentoring can be worse for employees than no mentoring at all. Ill-prepared and marginally competent mentors not only give mentoring a bad name in an organization. They also sabotage retention, commitment, and employee development — the very objectives that drive mentoring initiatives in the first place.
If you’re looking to create a mentoring program in your organization or improve upon one that already exists, you need a different approach. At a minimum, mentor competence requires functional mentoring skills, or the salient behaviors and strategies of good mentoring. Think of these as teachable micro-skills. For instance, great mentors consistently and skillfully offer generous listening, affirmation, challenge, feedback and insider information, networking, visibility, intentional role-modeling, professional socialization, advocacy, and increasing mutuality and collegiality. There is strong evidence that these skills can be instilled and refined through mentor development training.
You also will need to carefully select mentors on the basis of foundational virtues and abilities. Excellent mentors demonstrate virtues, such as personal integrity, good judgement around boundaries and confidentiality, and an inclination toward caring and acting with their mentee’s best interest at heart. Fundamental relational abilities include other-oriented empathy and self-awareness. It is no surprise that highly rated mentors show high levels of emotional intelligence. Mentees report that, to build trust and successfully launch relationships with them, mentors need empathy, genuineness, and approachability . And let’s be clear: a mentor training workshop will not instill these virtues and abilities. You must recruit people who demonstrate them already in daily practice.
How can you select the best-suited employees to serve as mentors and then give them the preparation and support they’ll require to achieve genuine expertise in the role? Consider the Master Mentor approach, created and first piloted at the School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in 2012.
School of Medicine leaders noticed high attrition of junior faculty, particularly women, who often reported feeling invisible and unsupported. Mentoring of junior faculty at the time was infrequent and haphazard in a highly competitive publish-or-perish culture. To address this, Hopkins decided to try something radical: flip the script on mentoring such that selection as a mentor became a competitive process accompanied by perks and recognition.
The Master Mentor approach was designed to create cohorts of experienced and well-trained mentors who are not only effective at enhancing the personal well-being and career trajectories of mentees but also willing to become resources and coaches to less experienced mentors. Successful Master Mentors accelerate the advancement of high-talent hires while elevating the quality of mentoring throughout their organization. Here are the salient components of the model they developed:
- The university solicits mentor candidate nominations from directors or managers, specifying that candidates must have a consistent track record of strong informal mentoring. Which mid-level to senior employees do new hires naturally gravitate to for advice and counsel? Who do junior employees consider to be the most generous, caring, and “safe” mentors-of-the-moment? Which of these have the highest EQ, the best communication skills, and a track-record for sponsoring rising stars to success? (Not sure who these folks are? Ask your junior employees.)
- A committee selects some of the best candidates from each division or department. For six months this cohort meets routinely for high-level mentor skill-building workshops and case discussions interspersed with lunches featuring consultation with subject matter experts, visits from senior leaders reinforcing the organization’s commitment to a mentoring culture, and discussions about leveraging mentoring to accelerate diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Following this training, Master Mentor certificates are issued — and noted in each graduate’s personnel file — and these mentors now deliberately take on a greater share of the mentoring load in their workplaces.
- Each year a new cohort of mentors is selected and trained, gradually permeating the organization with outstanding mentors.
This pilot program yielded some important lessons. First, resources are needed to administer these programs and support Master Mentors to dedicate time in their already busy schedules for this work, making it a high-priority activity. Second, creating and celebrating a culture of excellence in mentoring throughout the organization requires participation by all levels of leadership. Awards, public recognition, and other perks build and reinforce a clear message of institutional priority. Yearly events and graduation ceremonies celebrating new Master Mentors bolster a sense of community and encourage networking and peer consultation among Master Mentors.
This approach is just one way in which you can improve your organization’s mentoring options. Whether you have formal programs, an informal mentoring culture, or some combination of these, it’s time to banish marginal mentoring by changing the narrative about the priority of developmental relationships and carefully selecting, training, and elevating accomplished mentors.
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