The Power of Mentoring

Mentoring is a powerful tool to better your organization, improve the lives of your employees, and increase the satisfaction of your customers.  Are you leveraging this tool, or is it still lying neglected in your business toolbox?

The Case For Mentoring

When you think back on your first professional experience, what emotions are evoked?  Do you fondly remember the excitement of finally transitioning from student life to career, or do you think back with dread and anxiety?

I strongly suspect that your emotional response is tied to the attention you were given as a new employee.  To remain competitive in a difficult marketplace, professional services firms continue to try to take on more work with fewer employees.  This means that new employees are expected to be productive almost immediately, with little time for more than very basic new employee orientation and unstructured browsing of corporate materials accessible through the corporate intranet.

While this approach may result in more consultants working sooner on customer engagements, it can be very detrimental to a new team member’s initial impression of the firm and to the quality of the team member’s early deliverables to customers. Some of the latter can be mitigated through project quality control measures and project management oversight, but project managers are time starved as well and as likely as not to pass deliverables of sub-standard quality along to customers.  The end result is rework, unhappy team members and project managers, and most importantly, lower customer satisfaction.

Today’s microwave world has conditioned us to want everything now; certainly this is not the best way to build a consistently high performing team.  Perhaps there is no way to allocate more time to employee development, due to project deadlines and other pressing business demands.  Still, you have a powerful and often neglected weapon at your disposal to help you maximize your team’s potential in this high pressure environment — mentoring.

Sometimes mentoring happens because a well-intentioned veteran decides to take a new recruit under his wings. Sometimes it happens by happenstance when an experienced team member needs help to get things done. What I am advocating is an intentional, long-term commitment to a culture of mentoring. When I say intentional, I mean that a formal program is put in place for mentoring not only at the entry level, but at all levels within the organization.

The Benefits of Mentoring

An effective mentoring program delivers significant benefits to all of the various stakeholders.1  Mentorees can learn from their mentor’s experiences, and learn less from making their own mistakes.  This can lead to faster ramp-up time, higher initial quality of work, and increased confidence.  Mentors can also provide career advice that builds on observed strengths, identify and facilitate professional development opportunities, and act as an advocate to increase visibility within the company.

Mentors also stand to benefit.  At a minimum, the mentor is rewarded with the satisfaction of taking a direct part in the professional growth and success of another person. The mentor is typically viewed as an expert and valued for their experience. Displaying genuine interest in the professional well-being of a less experienced colleague often results in a lifelong loyalty to the mentor. Once a trusted relationship has been formed, the mentor may even be able to rely on the mentoree as a stand-in while away from the office on vacation, business travel, etc.  Of course, the mentor may also learn a thing or two from the mentoree as well!

The intangible benefits to a business include improved morale and motivation and increased retention of top talent.  Corporate knowledge is better retained and less likely to walk out the door due to staff turnover — both because that knowledge is being handed down from mentor to mentoree, and because increased retention rates mean fewer staff are actually walking out the door.2 Customers will receive more value, more quickly from their interactions with project staff who have a mentor guiding them.

Making Mentoring Work

For a formal mentoring program to succeed, it must have executive buy-in, and to gain executive buy-in there must be tangible benefits (i.e., benefits that affect the top line / bottom line of the business). I assume that you are already measuring organizational and project performance; as is commonly stated about any process improvement effort, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.  (If you do not have a metrics program in place, I urge you to establish one before implementing a mentoring or any other significant corporate program.)  Your current performance against appropriate metrics will serve as a baseline for measuring the effectiveness of your formal mentoring program.

Many of the benefits mentioned above can be quantified and measured.  Improvement of the quality of work from new employees can be measured using existing project quality metrics.  Customer satisfaction can be measured in terms of customer satisfaction surveys, repeat work, and creation of reference customers.  Workforce well-being can also be measured through surveys and employee retention rates.

Finally, mentoring should not just be for less experienced employees. In fact, in a culture of mentoring, everyone would both have a mentor and be a mentor (with the exception of employees who are too new to the organization or the industry to effectively mentor yet).3 CEOs and senior executives may need to look outside of their own organization to find a suitable mentor, but the value is still there and perhaps even more so than ever before in their careers. They should find someone who has been where they are today — former CEOs, leaders of larger companies or perhaps an admired leader in a completely different industry.  Even Jack Welch and Warren Buffett have others from whom they are learning, although Jack and Warren may prefer to call them “advisors”.

Mentoring is a powerful weapon for organizations that choose to use it.  Remember, mentoring is a long-term endeavor — take it slowly and intentionally, and be committed to making it stick.  Identify a small team who can pilot the concept, demonstrate the benefits to gain executive buy-in, and then act as catalysts for the rest of the organization to follow suit. Realize that business is a part of life, and investing in people at work is enriching their entire lives, lowering stress at home as less stress is brought home from work. Believe in the power of mentoring and watch your business and its people flourish!

 

  1. See “Benefits of Mentoring” for an example list of general benefits.  My list is tailored more to professional services and other project-based organizations.
  2.  The Delphi Group estimates that a whopping 75% of knowledge is tacit or experiential, and that 42% of corporate knowledge exists only within it’s employees minds. Passing knowledge, especially tacit knowledge, from mentor to mentoree is similar to storytelling as a mode of preserving historical accounts prior to the existence of written word.
  3. The Businessweek article “Mentors Make a Business Better” provides a good example of how a seasoned professional was able to benefit from mentoring.

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