Human Resources

Mentorship in a Skills-First Organization

September 9, 2022
3 minutes

Effective mentoring can have major positive impacts on an organization and the careers of people. 

“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well, I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.”- Denzel Washington. 

Despite how important mentors are, many feel these days that, in our hypercompetitive and remote world, it is easy for corporate mentoring programs to become stale and bureaucratic. 

As we move deeper into the skills age, more organizations are asking themselves questions about what their own mentorship approach looks like and the strategy that underpins it. 

At tilr, we know how important mentorship is but also recognize that the world has changed and so too must how we implement mentorship across organizations. Let’s dive in.

What is Mentorship? 

Mentorship is sometimes tough to define. If you’ve had a mentor, you know what one looks and feels like, but if you haven’t, it can be difficult to put your finger on it. 

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes and mentoring relationships change depending on the situation or where you are in your life.

Generally though, a mentor is a person who helps others learn things they would have learned less well, more slowly or not at all by themselves.

To be a mentor, one must genuinely care about the other personally and want to see them succeed as an individual, not just as a professional. Historically, a mentor was more senior than their mentee but that is no longer the case. Mentors can be younger or less experienced than their mentee. It all depends on the nature of the relationship. 

Mentors provide all kinds of support to mentees but this support tends to fall in two categories, with different intents: 

 Type  Career Support  Personal Support
 Intent/outcome  To help the mentee get ahead  To help the mentee stay ahead
 Topics Covered
  • Finding challenging and growth opportunities  
  • Career guidance and setting realistic expectations 
  • Getting exposure to people and resources  
  • Learning to navigate one's environment
  • Sharing industry and past experience
  • Sounding board for difficult situations
  • Ongoing encouragement
  • Guidance through political challenges
  • Managing Work/life integration
  • Managing one’s self
  • A common misconception about mentoring is that it is only a one-way street. Mentorship is about a mutually beneficial partnership where both the mentor and mentee hold commitments to each other and get value from working together.

    What Makes Great Mentors and Mentees? 

    Although what makes a great mentor can be individual, most see several common qualities that underpin great mentors such as: 

    1. Being personally and professionally credible 
    2. Being of high integrity 
    3. Someone who tells you things you may not want to hear 
    4. Leaves you feeling that you’ve been heard
    5. Interacts with you in a way that makes you want to be better
    6. Makes you feel secure enough to take risks
    7. Supports your attempts to set and reach stretch goals 
    8. Gives you the confidence to rise above your inner doubts and fears
    9. Presents opportunities and highlights challenges you might not have seen on your own

    Similarly, being a great mentee follows a few common qualities. These include: 

    1. Respecting the mentor’s time and confidentiality
    2. Takes responsibility and the initiative for the mentoring relationship and action items 
    3. Never insists on special favors that the mentor has not already offered
    4. Listens carefully to mentor feedback
    5. Works toward achieving goals between touch points
    6. Gives as much as they get
    7. Shows up to the mentoring meetings prepared and ready to drive/contribute to the conversation
    8. Shares how they process and share information – tells their mentor what works for them

    What Does a Great Mentorship Relationship Look Like?

    Imagine a great mentorship relationship. What does it look like? 

    Since mentorship is about partnership, there are ways to do it right and wrong. Both mentors and mentees have a set of responsibilities that should be established and upheld as part of the mentorship relationship. These often include:

     Mentor  Mentee
  • Understands strengths and development areas of Mentee
  • Identify gaps of mentee
  • Set high expectations for mentee
  • Guide conversations through probing questions
  • Is available and present
  • Be open to different perceptions/ expectations around development
  • Insists on confidentiality
  • Is candid in conversations and with how things are working in the relationship
  • Drives conversations & comes prepared
  • Showcase strengths, is realistic and open regarding development areas
  • Is open to feedback, thinks about how to move forward
  • Works to accomplish stretch targets
  • Owns the relationship, requests reasonable time commitments
  • Is open to different perceptions and expectations around personal and professional development
  • Insists on confidentiality unless both agree to discuss with others
  • Agrees to be candid in conversations and how the relationship is working
  • Mentorship vs Sponsorship 

    One the biggest sources of confusion when it comes to mentorship happens when it is mistakenly used interchangeably with sponsorship. Don’t be fooled! They are far from the same things. 

    While a mentor can be a sponsor, the intent and outcomes of the two are quite different:

     Mentorship  Sponsorship
  • Formal or informal
  • Can be outside of functional lines or cross job boundaries
  • Mentee drives relationship
  • Broader long term focus on personal and professional goals
  • Growth oriented
  • Can address personal and professional matters
  • Must be with a senior leader with influence
  • Exposes proteges to other executives who may help with their career
  • Ensures their proteges are considered for promising opportunities and challenging assignments
  • Protects their proteges from negative publicity or harmful connection with senior executives
  • Fights to get their people promoted
  • How does mentorship work in the workplace? 

    Many organization struggle when it comes to understanding how mentorship can exist within their workplace given how broad it can be. 

    Mentorship relationships can occur and develop organically, but can also be established through a structured program that is led and managed by HR. Common objections to these types of programs relate to forcing nonorganic interactions, ensuring good matches, draining the time of the most seasoned or valuable people, not being able to measure results, stoking potential job hopping or taking time away from day to day tasks. 

    Despite these challenges and objections, most large organizations have instituted some sort of formal mentorship program as part of their talent development efforts. In fact: 

    • 84% of U.S. Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs
    • 90% of U.S. Fortune 250 companies have mentoring programs
    • 96% of U.S. Fortune 100 companies have mentoring programs
    • 100% of U.S. Fortune 50 companies have mentoring programs

    The value of mentorship for an organization

    In 2022, one of the biggest challenges businesses continue to face relate to attracting, retaining and developing talent. These also are the driving forcing that make mentorship valuable to any company. 

    86% of CEOs surveyed by Vistage in 2020 agreed that mentors were a crucial part of their career accomplishments. 

    Today, more organizations are also looking for new ways to bolster their resilience, ensure critical knowledge transfer and help those who have joined or been onboarded in an age of hybrid work build relationships.

    Recent research suggests that mentorship can play a big role here. Companies who invest in mentoring had 18% better profits than average, while those without had profits that were 45% worse than the average.

    Lastly, mentorship is particularly important for ensuring the long-term success of minority, marginalized or underrepresented groups; women and those of minorities were more likely to say that mentoring is extremely important to their careers. 

    Interestingly, Fortune 500 companies that have both mentoring programs and female CEOs emerged from the economic ravages of 2020 with an average year-over-year profit change that was positive instead of negative.

    How to make mentorship worthwhile in the skills age

    Given the rapid changes taking place today in the workforce, mentorship programs need to adapt to continue driving value.  The emergence of the skills age has resulted in the need for mentorship programs to refocus the “what” and “how” they are delivered to ensure they remain relevant for the needs of today’s organizations and tomorrow’s talent. 

    Before you start your organization’s mentorship journey though, realize that no matter the type of mentorship relationships or mentorship programs you may create, getting involved isn’t for everyone. You shouldn’t go about mandating participation. 

    Deprioritize seniority 

    Your organization needs to shake the idea that a mentor needs to be based on seniority. That doesn’t matter in the skills age. A mentor can be anyone and mentorship relationships can take many forms. In the skills age, a CEO can get as much value learning about Tik Tok from an intern as that intern can from the CEO in terms of how to navigate their career. 

    Ground interactions in skills

    Most mentorship programs match mentors and mentees based on where they are functionally or based on what roles the mentor has previously held. While doing things this way isn’t a bad approach, in the skills age, organizations need to focus less on experience and more on skills. By creating skills profiles and conducting matching based on the skills the mentor has vs the skills the mentees are looking to develop, organizations can have a much higher likelihood of driving tangible and immediate value. Taking this approach can also help broaden a mentee’s view of the opportunities that exist in their organization to develop the skills they are looking to develop. These types of exposures could help reduce attrition having been provided with a broader menu of career options.

    Make it part of a personalized training and development plan

    A big issue with mentorship programs is that they fail to work in context of the specific development needs of mentors and mentees. To make mentorship more valuable and tangible, it should be wrapped into customized training plans of employees and paired with specific additional learning content that helps solidify the learnings from mentorship sessions. While many employees see mentorship as generally a good thing, providing them access to unstructured mentorship in a vacuum that isn’t tied to their documented development plan can result in frustration and disengagement. To generate a return on your investments in time and effort, make sure all mentorship activities are in context of the unique development needs of both mentees and mentors. 

    Where to start

    Mentoring can do a lot to drive engagement, development, retention and resilience. No matter if your company is big or small, mentoring is probably already happening in company in some form but if you want to start putting some structure around it, here are some steps to get started. 

    1. Identifying the challenges you are looking to solve for through putting more structure around mentorship that are grounded in data
    2. Define what mentorship means and looks like for your organization
    3. Socialize your ideas with individuals across your organization (not just those who are the most senior) 
    4. Determine what kind of structure and cadence a mentorship program could take based on your culture and resources
    5. Define ways to quantitatively measure the outcomes you are looking to drive

    Once you’ve done these baseline tasks, you’ll be in a much better place to determine where you should take your mentorship strategy and boundaries that should define it.

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