Our leaders are important, but it can be difficult to realise their full potential.
We specialise in creating bespoke leadership effectiveness solutions for companies across the globe and in our experience, we’ve found that the inclusion of mentoring in the development process can be astoundingly effective.
But what makes mentoring so successful? And how can we put it into practice to glean the best outcomes?
Exploring the answers in conversation:
- Maisie Beckenham, Senior Consultant, Indigogold
- Dr Clare Gilbert Laurent Coach, Consultant, Writer and Speaker. Clare has undertaken seven years of Masters’ and doctorate research into women's careers and mixed gender mentoring relationships.
- Katherine Ray, Founder and Director, Talentology. Formerly Global Talent Capability Manager and Global Mentoring Lead, Unilever.
Mentoring is a strategic tool. Done right, it can accelerate leadership development and readiness; attract and retain high-potential talent; shape organisational culture; and close engagement and generational gaps.
There are many misconceptions about what mentoring is – or needs to be in order to be effective. Collectively, we agree that it is simply a relationship established to share knowledge and support, delivered in an intimate and positive way that focusses on the work to be done, career, and wider professional development.
As the world of work evolves, organisations are challenging traditional mentor-mentee relationships. Reverse mentoring, peer-to-peer mentoring, learning circles and cross-organisational mentoring are boosting the cross-pollination of ideas in a multi-level exchange of knowledge and support.
We believe all these arrangements can work effectively with the right support and resource from the organisation. But how do you effectively incorporate mentoring into a leadership programme? There are some common pitfalls to avoid: and best practices to uphold…
Understand the process
Mentoring is often seen as the poor relation to coaching, says Katherine, with its established industry foothold, array of training, formal accreditations, and regulatory bodies. Because of this, mentoring can be seen as a cheaper, ‘quick fix’ by those who think, “We need to give our people something: let’s implement a mentoring programme.” The programme is formally launched: but people are subsequently left to their own devices, with little or no support throughout. By the time the feedback forms are sent out, all but the most steadfast adherents have fizzled out and the programme has essentially dissolved and not achieved the desired results.
And as Clare highlights, we often overlook the importance of establishing a shared understanding of expectation and goals with the potential sponsors for the programme at the top of the organisation right from the outset: this has the potential to affect the quality of the initiative later down the line. Championing mentoring from the very top can make a difference to how the relationships are perceived and prioritised in the organisation.
From an investment perspective, mentoring is often poorly executed because there’s a mistakenly held belief that it’s going to be cheap to set up, and then will just run itself. This simply isn’t the case. If you want to do it well, creating an effective mentoring programming is a relatively big task, says Katherine. You need to have your eyes open about what the process entails from the get-go: and be prepared to invest the resource necessary to make it a success.
Many mentoring programmes seem to be created without a clear purpose. But meandering through the process without a destination in mind is as pointless in this case as it would be for any organisational goal. If you’re using mentoring to develop leadership effectiveness, be clear on this. Establish exactly what you’re trying to achieve and get advice (externally if necessary) to design a programme that directly addresses the strategic imperative.
Katherine shares her experience of setting up the successful mentoring programme at Unilever: there was a clear objective to achieve greater gender balance across all leadership roles and throughout the organisation. 80% of their consumers were women, and they believed that addressing this gender balance was critical to achieving their overall targets.
In a recent piece of work here at Indigogold, our client organisation wanted to decrease talent attrition and build a strong talent pipeline for the future. For this to happen, the leadership team needed to take more accountability for the development and progression of their future leaders. Establishing a mentoring element to the programme with contact between existing and potential leaders was a key factor for success, and had the systemic impact of creating a cohesive, effective talent pipeline with more engaged senior management.
If organisations can weave business imperatives into the ‘why’ of creating the programme in the first place, it can be very powerful for overall outcomes. It’s not an easy thing to achieve, requiring careful exploratory thought that can’t be rushed into or launched as a knee-jerk reaction: it needs to be proactive, not reactive, Clare emphasises.
More often than not, mentoring is an HR initiative: but sponsorship from the organisation as a whole (the CEO or SLT) will make the programme much more powerful. Participation needs to be seen as a company-wide transmission – and the need for mentoring a business imperative rather than a “nice to have.”
Gaining this sponsorship will greatly depend on the internal credibility of the HR team, as will programme uptake across the organisation. If mentoring has been a flop historically, this will act as a barrier and need to be addressed.
Establishing a strong brand for the programme and enthusiastically communicating its goals, objectives and requirements will be key in obtaining initial and ongoing buy-in organisation-wide.
Invest sufficient resource
As we mentioned above, there’s a frequent assumption that mentoring will be more cost-effective than other one-to-one development interventions. Hand in hand with this misunderstanding often comes an underinvestment in the necessary training to allow mentors and mentees to fulfil their responsibilities effectively and maximise the opportunity.
Setting an untrained mentor loose on your employees is inadvisable: it’s about as prudent as promoting your best technical expert to the role of manager without ensuring their competence to lead others. Mentoring requires an additional set of skills and tools, over and above the person’s existing role – however senior they are.
Katherine brings back the coaching parallel: you wouldn’t create an in-house coaching programme without cultivating the necessary ability in your internal coaches. The same holds true for mentors.
Confusion about the mentoring-coaching divide can also be unhelpful here, making the ‘rules’ even more tricky to navigate. Do mentors contract like they would in coaching? Can people be more directive as a mentor than they might be as a coach? For mentoring to work, the mentor and the mentee need to have a shared understanding of what they each (and the organisation) hope to gain from their relationship; and what their expectations are of each other. Training upfront is crucial to stay focused on the overall objective and decide when the relationship has stopped adding value.
Some organisations skip the training and remove risk by creating a set mentoring process. This, however, makes the intervention ‘point in time’, meaning that the process won’t be specific to the individuals involved. It also leaves them less well equipped to establish new, successful mentoring relationships in the future. There is less investment: but there is also less return.
‘Proving’ the success of your mentoring programme ensures its longevity – avoiding you having to go, cap in hand, to ask for money to establish a second cohort. We need to demonstrate the return on the investment.
However, Clare points out, attempts to establish a direct relationship between ‘success’ and mentoring has been a struggle. A traditional focus has used promotion as the primary measure: but if the people selected for the programme were already the brightest and best, who’s to say that they wouldn’t have been promoted anyway?
A more nuanced approach is called for – one that’s less black and white, but still rigorous enough to tie into the bigger picture commercially. Building on learning from her doctorate research into women's careers and mixed gender mentoring relationships, in her professional practice Clare devised and implemented a ‘fourth generation evaluation’ process.
She suggests getting regular input from key stakeholders involved in or affected by the mentoring process (such as HR executives, peers of mentees, team members and so on) throughout and following the programme. This can be done in writing or by a simple conversation. Collating their opinions on the aims, progress and success of the programme (as well as areas that could be improved on) gives an evaluation that’s both inclusive, nuanced and thorough – casting the net of enquiry wide to get a bird’s eye view of progress. It also allows problems with individual mentoring relationships to be picked up and addressed during the life of the programme rather than allowing sub-optimal relationships just to fizzle out unnoticed. The overall goal of fourth generation evaluation is that continuous, ongoing qualitative evaluation becomes a part of the company’s core processes and culture.
Attention needs to be paid to intangible benefits – such as the positive effects of the relationship itself, boosts in confidence and commitment to the organisation. So while a mentee may not have been promoted directly as a result, you may discover that the programme was what made them stick with the organisation rather than leaving; that in mentoring an employee three grades removed from her, a member of the SLT is leading more effectively and getting better results from her team; or that the least outspoken mentee of the entire cohort has found the experience completely transformative, both personally and professionally.
We’d love to hear your thoughts or support you with mentoring in your own organisation.
To join the conversation, get in touch with Maisie at firstname.lastname@example.org or join the IG Insights group.