It takes two: Making mentoring work

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They say two heads are better than one, which is why mentoring can help unlock the potential within staff looking to develop within the company. But it's not all one sided. Louise Druce, writing for our sister site, TrainingZone, finds out that one-to-one programs can also give mentors a new lease of life.

The first few weeks in a new job can be daunting enough trying to place faces with names and get to grips with where everything is. Then there's the actual job to contend with. That's why it makes sense to have someone with insider experience guiding you over the first few hurdles rather than being left to fend for yourself after an all-encompassing, albeit brief, introduction to the role.

Mentoring isn't just for the newbies, however. Staff who are stuck in a rut, those dealing with major changes within the company, or a freshly promoted manager can all benefit from having one-to-one sessions with someone renowned for getting the job done in the most effective way. It also gives the mentee the opportunity to discuss what is really on their mind without fear of upsetting the boss or putting themselves in the firing line.

The difference between mentoring and coaching is how issues that crop up are solved. Mentors are not there to tell people what to do and how to do it. They are more of a sounding board, letting people tap into their expertise to find ways to solve problems on their own.

UK-based United Utilities used mentors for its leaders and line managers, principally for succession planning, but also to develop expertise across the business using as yet unexploited sources. "We have quite a lot of people who are either senior or middle management who are eligible to retire in the next few years," explains Robbie Lightfoot, who leads the organizational development team for the contract solutions division at United Utilities.

"They have a lot of experience that we hadn't tapped into which we can use to develop some of our up and coming people and to disseminate technical knowledge out to wider audiences," said Lightfoot.

The use of mentors at United Utilities is mainly focused on four groups: managers, engineers, apprentices or graduates. Senior and middle staff from within the company volunteer their own time to walk the mentees through the basics such as who the key stakeholders are and the culture of the business, as well as helping with specifics such as how to deal with change, people management, or technical challenges.

Not everyone can be a mentor, however. "The sorts of qualities we look for are people that are able to empathise with others, who are trustworthy, non-judgmental, patient, and are able to support as well as challenge," says Lightfoot. "To begin with, most mentors think it's about giving advice, and it isn't. We make sure ours are trained on a two-day program to understand what it's all about and hone in on their skills."

"The sorts of qualities we look for are people that are able to empathise with others, who are trustworthy, non-judgmental, patient, and are able to support as well as challenge."

Robbie Lightfoot
Organizational Development Team Leader
United Utilities

Match point

Matching mentee and mentor can be tricky, but it is vital to ensure the relationship is productive for both parties. First of all, it is important to gauge what the mentee is looking for in a mentor in terms of expertise and what they are ultimately hoping to get out of the partnership. Then other factors can be added in, such as how senior the mentor is within the company and geographical location.

Mike White, learning and development manager at UK-based The Children's Society, also believes it is critical that immediate bosses are involved in the mentoring process, although he advises against letting them mentor a direct employee. "One of the keystones is to ensure the support of the line manager so that the mentee isn't just left in a vacuum," he emphasises. "There is support in terms of time and sometimes money, but the mentee also needs to be aware of what is on offer: what is mentoring, how does it connect with the role, how will it enable them to better conduct business? Tied into that is support for the line manager. Where does it come from? What is HR going to facilitate? For example, their role might be around monitoring and evaluation."

He adds: "Within the line manager relationship there is an inevitable focus around the need to be assured of the performance of the individual, checking out where they are in terms of performance objectives and how they are behaving in an organisational context. Mentoring is about getting to the heart of the individual, finding out what they are about, where they want to go and how to unlock their potential."

There are a number of ways to tell if the programs are successful, apart from the obvious signs of whether or not mentor and mentee are getting along. The most popular methods are regular, separate sessions with mentor and mentee to find out what is or isn't working and looking at individual achievements or progression since mentoring began. Employee surveys are also commonly used to try to determine whether attitudes towards career development has changed for the better.

Retention rates

A more obvious indicator of success is attrition and retention rates. Both White and Lightfoot have seen more people progress through the ranks since mentoring programmes were introduced. Lightfoot adds another factor that also points to whether or not it is working is the fact that a high number of senior managers are already mentors within United Utilities but people are still queuing up to volunteer their services.

"We were struggling up to a couple of years ago when it came to finding successors to replace people who were progressing upwards or due to retire. Mentoring can help strengthen that pipeline." he says. "We recruit more people from within, rather than looking externally, by exploiting the expertise of senior people. It's also more cost effective."

And it's not just the mentees who benefit. "We've found that mentoring for some people is about development by the back door," Lightfoot explains. "Some of the people who have been mentors had peaked in their careers and typically wouldn't want to do any more development. They have found being a mentor very rewarding. It's given them something back and opened their eyes, changing their awareness and perspectives. In some cases it's given them a new lease of life."

He adds: "If you've got people in the organization you want to develop, mentoring is definitely one way to do it."

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