Is mentoring the new black?

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Written by Jenny Garrett on 1 February 2014 in Features

Jenny Garrett thinks it is, and has some advice on how to wear it well

Type the word 'mentoring' into Twitter and you will come up with a plethora of results. From mentoring initiatives in schools and entrepreneurs mentoring start-up businesses, to heroic stories of women beating the odds to break through the glass ceiling at work thanks to their mentors.

The common mantra is 'if you haven't got a mentor, you should do'. In the workplace, it is unlikely that you have progressed through your career without being offered a mentor but, if that is the case, this article may motivate you to create a mentoring initiative within your organisation.

This article will share with you:

  • the three factors that make mentoring a popular and effective development choice in the workplace
  • a ten-point route map if you are considering implementing mentoring in your organisation
  • some potential pitfalls and final tips for workplace mentors.

Origins of mentoring

Mentoring is an ancient archetype originating in Greek mythology. Mentor - a figure in Homer's Odyssey - was a wise and faithful advisor entrusted to protect Odysseus's son, Telemachus, while Odysseus sailed against Troy.

The original mentoring archetype embodied both male and female attributes. Mentor was a man but Athena, the female goddess of wisdom, assumed his form in order to guide, teach and protect young Telemachus.

So, mentoring has been around for more than 3,000 years and has deep roots.

According to Business Finance magazine, 71 per cent of Fortune 500 and private companies use mentoring in their organisations1. And 77 per cent of US companies surveyed in 2000 said mentoring improved both retention and performance of employees.

Mentoring has grown in popularity over recent years becoming more mainstream than its close cousin coaching. According to The Ridler Report, an internationally reputed research project analysing strategic trends in the use of senior level executive coaching, the trends in coaching are towards internal rather than external coaches, team coaching and more discerning purchasers of coaching, whereas mentoring appears to have proliferated all aspects of the workplace, supporting increased staff retention, greater advancement of minority and female staff and increased productivity in all areas2.

For the purpose of this article, I will focus on formal workplace mentoring. Workplace mentoring aims to enhance employees' personal and career development3. In formal mentoring, goals are established and outcomes are measured. A process for accepting new mentees is put in place and a matching process is defined. Training and support are provided for the mentor and mentee.  Typically the duration of mentoring relationship is limited to a year and the workplace benefits directly.

Mentees are often pleased that the mentor is not their line manager and that the relationship takes place outside the line management gaze.

Formal mentoring

  • links competency development to strategic business needs
  • ensures that skills are developed
  • involves a company's experts in the process
  • creates and promotes a learning and diverse culture.

There are many debates on the difference between coaching and mentoring, which I won't get into here, but I will offer up a definition of mentoring by David Clutterbuck - "A mentor is a more experienced individual willing to share knowledge with someone less experienced in a relationship of mutual trust"4 - and my own - "A mentor is a wise sage who imparts knowledge with the intention of supporting you in coming to your own solutions".

The time for mentoring is now

My belief is that the unique context we find ourselves in has facilitated the attractiveness of mentoring, namely the:

  • growth of social learning
  • recognition of the value of feminine qualities in business
  • current economic climate.

Social learning

I chose to make reference to Twitter, the social micro-blogging site, at the beginning of this article because it is an example of social learning in action. Equivalent to a 24/7 worldwide brainstorming session, content and latest news are shared, behaviour is observed and emulation can take place, with anyone in the world, in only 140 characters.

Social learning is learning with and from others. You can think of the mentoring relationship in the same way. The assumption is the mentee lacks certain knowledge and behaviours necessary to perform the job so the mentor in many ways shares and role-models his expertise to fill the knowledge and behaviour gap. One of the most well known researchers of social learning is Albert Bandura, who states: "Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do."5

The answers to skill-based questions already exist; mentoring can help the mentee get access to this information quickly and accurately.

Mentoring has much in common with Twitter:

  • typically, but not always, it is free of charge
  • you can benefit from a more experienced person sharing their knowledge
  • you are in control of when you access it
  • the mentee can pay it forward and mentor others - very much like a retweet
  • the feminine approach of collaboration and co-operation is present, building on each other's thoughts and ideas.

Valuing feminine qualities

As John Gerzema and Michael D'Antonio's proprietary survey of 64,000 people around the world shows, traditionally feminine leadership and values are now viewed as more favourable than the macho paradigm of the past6. The most innovative among us are breaking away from traditional structures to be more flexible, collaborative and nurturing. The mentor must use skills such as empathy, patience, flexibility, intuition and long-term thinking to develop his mentee; these are viewed as more feminine qualities, even though possessed by men and women. In contrast, masculine qualities such as competiveness, independence, aggression, rigidity and pride do not necessarily lend themselves to the role of the mentor.

Mentoring is a non-threatening way of introducing these essential feminine qualities into organisations, creating a new norm. Connectedness is at the heart of keeping teams performing, retaining staff and moving your workplace aims forward. As Paul Allaire, ex CEO of Rank Xerox, said: "The hardest stuff is the soft stuff - values, personal style, ways of interacting. This is where mentoring can really add value."

Economic climate

The current economic climate has led to organisations having scarce resources to employ external coaches and mentors. Neither do they have capacity to support staff in the way they may have done previously. Increasingly, employees are also dissatisfied at work, missing the meaningfulness and challenge essential to keep them loyal and motivated in their role.

According to a study conducted in the UK in 2011 by online recruitment consultancy, a third of the employees who participated were unhappy in their job7. Of the 31 per cent who said they were unhappy, 34 per cent said this was because they were bored, 29 per cent said that was because their role wasn't "challenging" enough, and 12 per cent said they were unhappy because their position was too difficult.

Creative organisations are developing their staff through mentoring. The mentors benefit from the connection, sharing and ethos of this 'give and gain' mentality, while the mentees benefit from support to increase their skills and performance, challenge to step up to the next level and a reignited interest in their work.

Developing internal mentors is relatively inexpensive, compared with other types of development. A good start is a two-day training programme, followed up with regular supervision and opportunities for continuous professional development. This can be built on with accreditation as the mentoring service develops.

So, if mentoring is the new black, how do you wear it?

The answer is that it will need to be tailored to your workplace, but here is a ten-point route map of how to do that.

Find your friends It's always important to find like-minded colleagues to support you and build momentum:

  • who will sponsor the mentoring initiative? How can this person or people be influenced?
  • who else is likely to sponsor the mentoring - maybe there are other interested parties in your organisation that you don't know about
  • who can help you find these people, if it isn't obvious to you?
  • how best can everyone work together to create a mentoring initiative? Does a project or working group need to be created?

Ensure that you are singing from the same hymn sheet Have a clear definition of what mentoring is and how it looks in your workplace:

  • how can you dispel any myths about mentoring?
  • how will the mentoring initiative integrate with other developmental programmes, eg support the application of learning from a management programme or build confidence after a staff induction?
  • how can a sustainable mentoring capability be established in your institution, rather than it just depending on you?

Connect pain with gain Make clear links with how the mentoring can alleviate challenges in your workplace:

  • where are the current performance gaps in your institution? How could the mentoring help with it? Perhaps, for example, you have a high turnover of new staff - mentoring could be used to address this and save money
  • how could the mentoring initiative create the value or results that the leaders of your institution are looking for?

Speak the language of business Think about the language that your business likes to hear, whether that's cost saving, customer service or something else. Use the buzzwords:

  • what are the costs of not investing in mentoring?
  • does the expected value justify the investment?

Gain sponsorship Find a senior person within your organisation who is willing to speak in the right circles about mentoring and is as passionate as you are about it:

  • visible champions
  • share sponsorship so it's not just down to you.

Think strategically Consider the long-term strategy for implementing mentoring:

  • remember why you are implementing mentoring in the first place
  • conduct a needs analysis: mentoring is probably only part of the solution
  • make sure you are addressing the cause of the problem, not the symptoms.

Link with the strategic needs of the organisation Make sure there are objectives linked to these strategic needs, to demonstrate your success:

  • ensure that you evaluate
  • if possible, integrate with HR and other processes.

Clear objectives Set clear objectives, which lead to needs, which lead to strategy:

  • understand senior leader expectations
  • build your business case.

Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate Measure so that you can share success stories and learn how to improve the quality of the mentoring that you provide:

  • look for intangible and monetary value
  • develop evaluation objectives that flow from the objectives of mentoring.

HR and other processes Integrate mentoring into existing systems and processes, making it seamless rather than an add-on:

  • performance management
  • succession management
  • leadership development.

Wear black with caution

Although mentoring is the new black, it should be worn with care. It is not the panacea for all workplace ailments and, therefore, should not be thrown on to face every workplace challenge but should be worn appropriately and tailored to the individual.

In addition, you still might need to engage external or internal coaches to get to the heart of the matter with certain issues, especially if the challenge is more personal and relates to self-belief.

The matching process is critical: the mentee must trust the mentor and they must have credibility and feel safe in the process. How you manage confidentiality should be outlined at the outset, alongside the boundaries of your mmentoring relationship.

However, if all of this is in place, the process can be empowering and provide a sustainable development model for succession planning, free up line managers' time and create a culture in which learning is shared.

I encourage you to take advantage of the unique context in which we find ourselves to propel mentoring in your workplace.

I'll leave you with my top tips for mentors:

  • get down and dirty - you can't mentor from a distance, you have to get your hands dirty and understand the nitty gritty of what your mentee does
  • open doors - use your connections and your networks to open doors for your mentee
  • don't let your mentee off the hook, keep them focused and on track to act
  • meet regularly - weekly or bi-monthly to keep the momentum going. The sessions can be short and sweet
  • be prepared to learn as much as your mentee does.




3 Kram K E Mentoring at Work Scott Foresman (1985)

4 Clutterbuck D Everyone Needs a Mentor Hyperion Books (1991)

5 Bandura A Social Learning Theory Pearson (1976)

6 Gerzema J, D’Antonio M The Athena Doctrine: How Women (and the Men Who Think Like Them) Will Rule the Future Jossey Bass (2013)


About the author

Jenny Garrett is an executive coach and founder of leadership and coaching consultancy Reflexion Associates. She is a mentor for the Cherie Blair Foundation and is also the author of Rocking Your Role, a how-to guide to success for female breadwinners. She can be contacted via


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