Talent, ambition, leadership skills, luck, or perhaps simply opportunity: which of the above would you say is the key to making it to the top of the corporate ladder? Well, according to a recent survey by the American Society for Training and Development, 75 percent of executives surveyed credit their mentors with helping them reach their current positions (1).
The same survey also shows that 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies run mentoring programs. In most cases, these are managed by human resources departments, and are tied to other initiatives to attract and retain talent, such as training and development programs or to internal promotion policies.
Small and medium-sized companies also use mentoring. A Sage survey carried out in 17 countries shows that 93 percent of SMEs see the value of mentoring practices in terms of improving their teams’ performance, although just 23 percent actually hire mentors, most of them from outside the company.
Mentoring programs offer clear advantages for businesses. Aside from allowing them to identify and develop talent, they increase feelings of satisfaction with work, build loyalty and encourage executives to identify with the company, and thus are a way to hold onto potentially valuable players. At the same time, mentoring is a way of passing on knowledge and key relationships from senior executives to younger professionals who may have only joined the company recently, while helping to develop skills and abilities related to the organization’s culture, or that provide corporate advantages.
In an increasingly diverse company environments, mentoring programs also help to attract minorities, as well as helping with intergenerational integration. Many large corporations will have a workforce spanning up to five generation: those born before 1945, the baby boomers born between 1945 and 1960, Generation X, from 1961 to 1980, Generation Y, from 1981 to 1995—also known as the millennials—, and Generation Z, born after 1996. The relationship between members of these different generations can generate interesting synergies for companies, mixing experience, reputation, and relationships on the part of older employees with the drive, technological affinity, and familiarity with the social networks characteristic of younger people. This has even led to what has been dubbed reverse mentoring, often attributed to Jack Welch at GE, by which younger executives take older members under their wing, as it were, teaching them about more recent consumer trends, how to make the best use of new technologies, for example, establishing relationships via the social networks. Alan Webber, co-founder of Fast Company, describes the potential of reverse mentoring: “It’s a situation where the old fogies in an organization realize that by the time you’re in your forties and fifties, you’re not in touch with the future the same way the young twenty-something’s. They come with fresh eyes, open minds, and instant links to the technology of our future”. (3)
Comparisons have been made between mentoring and coaching, but there are a number of important differences between the two, says Management Mentors, a company with two decades experience in the field. Coaching is essentially task oriented, performance driven, and largely aimed at achieving short-term goals. In many cases, the coach will be the boss of the company or a senior member of the management. In short, coaching is typically about developing specific skills, learning how a system or management program works, or preparing for taking on a new position or responsibility.
Mentoring, on the other hand, creates a lasting relationship between the two parties, and equally importantly, is as much about personal development as acquiring new skills. Furthermore, a mentor is, ideally, not a boss, but somebody from outside the mentee’s frame of reference.
As a rule, mentoring programs are for directors or younger managers with major potential, although CEOs themselves are also increasingly turning to support figures, usually in the form of coaches. A Stanford Graduate School of Business survey shows that 66% of CEOs don’t have external coaches, although all of those surveyed said they would like to have one. The survey also showed that in 78 percent of cases it was the CEO who initiated the search for a coach, and in 21 percent, it was the chairman of the board. Most CEOs are looking to acquire extra skills in conflict resolution, given the many agendas of the different stakeholders he or she must attend to. Some board members, for their part, say that CEOs need coaching in developing a succession plan and talent development, as well as in improving their sharing and delegation skills.
As we’ve seen, mentoring programs tend to be institutionalized within large corporations. That said, freelancers also use coaches, and even mentors. The self-improvement industry is estimated to be worth around $10 billion (6), generating in recent years any number of spin offs and other initiatives, such as websites that claim to match your personal development needs with the right coach or mentor. The social networks are also increasingly the place where people go to find mentors, with sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn offering advisory services.
There is no one-size-fits-all mentor, (7) and as we’ve seen with reverse mentoring, on occasions, a younger person can be the ideal advisor when it comes, for example to understanding the latest trends. The key elements in a successful mentee-mentor relationship are mutual respect, logical fit, the absence of any political agenda, similar working and personal styles, and a commitment to making the relationship work. (8) At the same time, it is important that a mentor brings added value, fits in, and inspires trust and confidence. As INSEAD’s Herminia Ibarra notes: “Chemistry is the key ingredient in true mentoring relationships.” (9)
In her fascinating book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast Track Your Career (10), Sylvia Ann Hewlett proposes a new category of personal support, the sponsor. These people are frequently bosses and who believe in the personal value and potential of their protégés. Importantly, they have the direct ability to decide on their promotion and allow them to act independently and to take risks. These types of relationships are based on a quid pro quo: “sponsors seek furthering your career as an important investment in his or her own career”. For their part, protégés assume a series of commitments, no necessarily explicitly agreed, along with demonstrating unshakeable loyalty, marking their personal stamp on the development and influence of their sponsor. Perhaps the important thing in these types of relationships is that the success of the protégé is almost built in, given that the sponsor also needs them for their own personal success.
In conclusion, here are four questions we might usefully ask ourselves about mentoring:
– Do you already have a mentor? If your company has a mentoring program and you haven’t been selected to take part in it, this might be a sign that you’re not considered a likely candidate for promotion. If your company doesn’t have a mentoring program, then I’d advise you to look for one, either internally or externally. Aside from the existing online platforms, LinkedIn can be a good source of mentors and coaches.
– What are you expectations? It is essential that both parties are clear about what they want from mentoring before beginning the process. Mentoring means being generous with your time and energy, and shouldn’t be seen as a supplier-customer relationship. Similarly, trust, an essential ingredient for success, won’t come simply from an agreement, and requires commitment and honesty by both parties. What’s more, it is generally understood that the initiative has to come from the mentee, and not the mentor.
– What do you want out of the process? Being a mentor offers many benefits far beyond any possible financial rewards, with prestige and recognition in the work place or sector among them. Furthermore, mentoring can help create networks that may yield opportunities in the future.
– Have you thought about a sponsor? As mentioned, a sponsor might prove to be more useful in certain situations. A sponsor ties their own professional success to that of their protégé, and so commits to the relationship fully.
The term mentor comes from Homer’s Odyssey, when the goddess Minerva takes on the human form of Mentor to help Telemachus find his father and retake the throne of Ithaca. Minerva commits to helping her protégé every step of the way, allowing him to take risks and make mistakes, the true sign of a mentor: “But such was the affection of my friend, that he embarked with me for that voyage, which, in the folly of my presumption, I undertook contrary to his advice; and the gods, perhaps, permitted the fault, that the calamity which it drew upon me might teach me wisdom.” (11)
(3)Lisa Quast. Reverse Mentoring: What it is and Why it is Beneficial, Forbes 2011/01/03
(8)Harvard Business School Publishing, The Right Match: Advice for Matchmakers from Coaching and Mentoring, Boston, Mass., 2006
(9) H. Ibarra, Making Partner: A Mentor’s Guide to The Psychological Journey,Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000
(10) Sylvia Ann Hewlett, (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast Track Your Career, (Harvard Business Publishing: Boston, Mass. 2013).
(11) The adventures of Telemachus, the son of Ulysses. From the French of Salignac de la Mothe-Fenelon. By John Hawkesworth.