We've heard it from politicians and corporate executives, from pillars of the community and once-troubled teenagers: "My mentor changed my life." In our careers, mentors serve as powerful forces offering new perspectives, experiential support, and an organizational wisdom that can only come from years of on-the-job learning.
When managed effectively, a mentoring relationship - or mentorship - can accelerate advancement, create learning opportunities, or even change the trajectory of our careers. Conversely, a poorly managed or haphazard approach to mentoring can prove detrimental to the protege, mentor, future program participants, and the overall organization.
Fortunately, mentoring participants and organizational leaders can take fairly simple, cost-effective measures to ensure a positive outcome for all three parties; in other words, create win-win-win mentoring.
Exemplary Mentoring Programs
What makes a mentoring program excel? What factors ensure satisfaction among participants and provide a healthy return-on-investment for the corporation? These and other questions prompted an extensive inquiry through which I interviewed leaders in top mentoring programs across the country. The process uncovered a number of factors for success; most importantly, organizations need demonstrated top management support for mentoring (Hegstad, 2002). Since mentoring contributes to enhanced employee satisfaction, retention, and on-the-job training, an organization benefits greatly by implementing a program with considerable planning and care.
Five Steps to Exemplary Mentorships
Assuming upper level management openly supports mentoring, the following steps - all implemented fairly easily - can enhance the mentor-protege relationship.
1. Select an appropriate partner
Formal programs often have a selection process through which mentors and proteges are matched based on certain criteria. Others might encourage self-selection, allowing proteges to choose from a pool of potential mentors. Typical matching criteria includes: mentors and proteges sharing common backgrounds or interests; the protege's developmental needs aligning with the mentor's areas of expertise; and consideration of job level, particularly the number of layers between mentor and protege.
Since effective matching plays a critical role in the success of mentorships, participants must take great care with this step. If criteria are not in place, both parties need, at a minimum, to identify goals for the relationship and match accordingly. Choosing a mentor simply because she or he is high-profile and will offer exposure will almost certainly lead to an ineffective mentorship.
2. Clarify plans and expectations
When first establishing the relationship, both mentor and protege need to share expectations with each other. Clarifying what they hope to gain from and offer to the relationship helps solidify the purpose of mentoring. Specificity helps; merely stating "I want to improve at my job" will not guide the relationship and will likely lead to disappointment.
Partners may also establish guidelines for their relationship such as frequency and length of meetings as well as expected duration of mentoring. Most exemplary programs suggest that participants meet once per month for one year; after that point, they may evaluate their relationship and determine whether continued mentoring would be beneficial.
The cornerstone of mentorships, like any relationship, is trust. Proteges need to know that they can share honestly without fear of retribution, and mentors need the security of knowing they won't be the point of gossip. Partners may find comfort in signing a confidentiality agreement stating that anything shared within the mentorship remains private.
3. Honor meetings
Frequently canceling or rescheduling meetings gives the impression that the mentorship is not important. While flexibility is required, partners placing obvious importance on their relationship will reap much greater benefits than those resorting to last-minute cancellations or forgetting scheduled meetings.
Partners can take measures to ensure meetings occur as planned: meet at the same time (i.e., the first Tuesday of the month from 9-11a.m.), agree on a location convenient to both, and block the meetings on intra-office schedules to avoid conflicting appointments. If participants honor the meeting as they would a doctor's appointment, the respect and importance towards mentoring will be readily apparent.
4. Arrive prepared
To create directed and purposeful mentoring meetings, many participants spend the final five minutes of each meeting determining what they will do before the next meeting: researching a topic or attending a seminar, for example. With such a strategy, partners can have an immediate starting point when they meet again.
Others communicate via email and clarify discussion topics prior to each meeting. Still other admirably organized mentoring participants complete a brief form identifying, for example, actions taken during the past month, challenges, and tentative plans for the coming month. However participants choose to prepare, their efforts will save time and demonstrate respect for their partner.
5. Incorporate career development plans
An unanticipated finding in my study showed that successful mentoring was often partnered with individual growth plans. Some programs encouraged proteges to write plans with their partners; others required employees to complete them individually or with their supervisors, then use them to guide the mentorship.
As career development professionals, we know the benefits of documenting a personalized plan outlining goals and visions for the future. Securing a mentor who can help realize these goals may accelerate their fulfillment and encourage further development.
When implemented with care and managed properly, mentoring can serve as a cost-effective, morale-boosting career development intervention. Proteges win through accelerated career growth and organizational learning, mentors through career rejuvenation and enhanced visibility, and companies through greater productivity and satisfaction among their employees - resulting in a win-win-win program for the entire organization.
Hegstad, C. D. (2002). The development and maintenance of exemplary formal mentoring programs in Fortune 500 companies. Doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Christine D. Hegstad, Ph.D. owns MAP Professional Development Inc., a strategic design firm offering seminars and consulting to promote meaningful careers and purposeful lives. A member of NCDA and speaker at the global NCDA conference in July, Dr. Hegstad's work in mentoring and career design has been widely published. Sign up for her free e-letter at http://www.meaning-and-purpose.com/.