In the past decade, a new word has squeezed itself between counseling and coaching.
It’s mentoring; neither coaching, nor therapy, nor counseling. It is defined as the process of developing the career of a less experienced person by someone who is an experienced source of sound advice and who acts as a role model for the mentee or protégé to emulate. A protégé is in a long-term mentoring and development program that results in the protégé becoming very much like the mentor, or actually succeeding the mentor as he or she moves on.
Mentoring has a long history beginning in Greek mythology, when Homer, in his epic poem “The Odyssey,” had Odysseus place Mentor in charge of his son Telemachus when he left for the Trojan War. In the Middle Ages, the guild system was a formalized mentor program where an apprentice moved up the guild ranks toward master craftsman under the guidance of experienced masters.
Fast forward to the 21st century: Today, mentoring is recognized as a very important part of reducing turnover, especially in retaining talented employees. Companies with strong mentoring programs have invested considerably in preparing mentors and mentees for the practices and results of mentoring. Such programs, when practiced well, can reduce the high cost of replacing an experienced and talented employee.
What are the characteristics of successful mentoring, whether formal or informal, for career development, succession planning, or advancement to a higher level of responsibility? Successful programs allow the mentee considerable latitude in selecting a mentor. Choice rather than assignment results in greater engagement, attention and learning on the part of the mentee.
Trust is another key factor. A relationship of trust produces lasting insight and a mentee eager to listen and learn more. Regular contact is important to keep pace with fast moving circumstances. The frequency of contact is determined by both mentor and mentee.
Realistic goals and expectations are a strong basis for mentoring success. A mentee should not expect a sure career path to success, to be promoted quickly, or be guaranteed anything. Mentee performance or applying the sum of all that the mentor has to offer is still critical.
Informal mentoring can be seeking advice and counsel from leaders in other functional departments for answers to specific questions. In my own circumstances at McDonnell Douglas Corporation (MDC), I sought the advice of several heads of different departments and divisions when I struggled with the decision to leave or stay.
The picture that unfolded was that the next level for me required a degree in engineering. The senior vice presidents on up were all engineers, and many from Princeton, where the chairman, “Mr. Mac,” got his degree. I was a psychologist who did well in an engineering firm, but based on the candid advice I received, I left MDC and started a business advisory and professional coaching firm. It was the right move.
Research studies have shown that both mentors and mentees benefit from the mentoring process. Mentees have a higher commitment to their work then non-mentored individuals. They earn higher performance rankings and have faster career progression. Mentors become better listeners, better communicators, develop a longer range perspective, and have the satisfaction of helping to develop the next generation of leaders.
How will mentors develop Gen Y or Millennials as they move into positions of greater responsibility?
In many ways mentoring Gen Y may be easier than previous generations. Studies have shown they seek frequent feedback, want the career fast track to success, and seek meaning and personal fulfillment from work. A respect for authority allows more realistic expectations guided by parents, teachers and bosses. Mentoring Millennials can provide the needed feedback and the sense of progress they seek in their careers. They can more easily rely on their bosses to be manager and mentor, not an easy role to play for the retiring Gen X manager who is still trying to understand this new generation.
Millennials have encouraged what is called by many, “reverse mentoring or reciprocal mentoring.” Jack Welch while at GE encouraged this process, which is now gaining popularity.
Basically, it recognizes the information and technical savvy that Millennials bring to work. According to Liz Wiseman they have a lot of “rookie smarts.” Fresh ideas, open minds, a questioning approach, and links to the future. Mentoring becomes team work and permits the Millennial workers the opportunity to show their “stuff” and use it with minimal guidance. The mentor can be the principal beneficiary in developing new perspectives about work and how to improve performance. Both the mentor and the mentee are empowered in a closer, more transparent, productive two-way relationship.
We’ll have to see how well this phenomenon creates the new organization of the future that’s better able to confront challenges with great agility and economy of effort. Ben Franklin summed up mentoring best when he said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
Bob Vecchiotti is a business adviser and professional coach in Peterborough. He lives in Dublin.