Re-thinking Mentoring

Re-thinking Mentoring to enable development and improve diversity

How do we know what types of mentoring are actually worthwhile?

The over-used term ‘glass ceiling’ is defined as an “invisible but real barrier through which the next stage or level of advancement can be seen, but cannot be reached.” Talented and qualified employees cannot advance to higher levels of management, even if they arguably deserve to. This is often put down to unconscious bias because of gender, ethnicity, age or other reasons. Mentoring is often seen as one of the solutions to accelerate the development of individuals, particularly women who sometimes struggle to climb to better positions. Benefits can be seen for mentor, mentee, and companies that then reap the rewards of potential that could have been left untapped. So why aren’t more companies encouraging it?

The merits of a well organised mentoring scheme are obvious. It retains knowledge, wisdom and experience of successful, long-term employee’s and nurtures it in lower levels of leadership. This ensures that as the company grows, consistent understanding is passed on. Mentees can learn more about the sector, and build invaluable networks of people. The relationship is often mutually beneficial, as the senior mentor gets to invest their time in passing on their knowledge and experiences. Kram (1985) suggests that the role modelling process can help mentors rediscover valued parts of themselves and rejuvenate their confidence. Mentors might experience a raised profile from being deemed worthy and successful, and can be savvy and use it to network with emerging talent.

In the study ‘Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She?’ by Neal, Boatmman and Miller, they found that 74% of women mentor because they themselves have benefited from the scheme in the past. This suggests that mentoring has positive effects on women, as they go on to achieve senior positions and become role models, and then further encourage others both by mentoring. It makes sense that even visibility of a diverse senior management can even encourage ambition and drive – if they can do it, why not me?

The study also found that 56% of organisations have a formal program for mentoring in place, but sometimes these have no strategy and leave the success of the program to chance. There is no doubt that the general concept of mentoring is a good one. The problem lies with how it is implemented. Without a formal program in place, an attempt could be half-hearted, and produce little results. Another issue is one of finding the Mentors in the first place. The sad fact is that some businesses simply wouldn’t have enough, if any, representative senior women to effectively roll out a mentoring scheme. If not enough is being done to invest in women and retain them, setting up a scheme to push them to their full potential becomes difficult. Where suitable role models lack, there is always the option of external mentoring, looking outside the company to find a willing Mentor. Companies such as Board Mentoring and Women On Boards can be useful in providing experienced mentors, who offer more formal mentoring without the issues of internal politics. This might be a better option for those who desire a mentor, to find one outside of their workplace, instead of waiting for a company to step up.

The results of mentoring are hard to quantify and compare, as it depends on quality of human interaction. If a scheme improves confidence and happiness for the mentee, but she or he doesn’t progress or get a promotion, is that unsuccessful or successful? The nature of mentoring means it is highly variable – pairs might meet regularly or infrequently, face-to-face or online. They may produce measurable results (i.e. the subject is promoted) or be virtually undetectable. Some might argue that sponsorship is more important than internal mentoring. Whereas men tend to more eagerly ask and offer to mentor, women typically need to be encouraged. (Laff, 2009) If this is true, then the push for women to break the glass ceiling might be more effective to come from a champion demanding their recognition through referral for promotion. The definition of mentorship that leans towards sponsorship remains accepted in the U.S., where ‘hands on’ help is expected. However the European and Australian definition would find this unacceptable. Perhaps a mixture of both external mentoring and internal sponsorship is the way to encourage improvement.

Until you can remove all unconscious bias from the business world, and effectively measure the benefits of mentoring against plain sponsorship, it remains difficult understand how best to approach this subject, be it on a personal or company-wide level. Though the benefits of mentoring are no doubt there, working out how to develop a program that ensures diversity at the highest levels of management is still a long way off.

Elizabeth Hurst
Writer and Researcher at Empiric.
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