Mentoring: To Manage or Not to Manage?
by Bryan Leach
Mentoring can be an effective method for affecting the intergenerational transfer of the knowledge assets that comprise a company’s source of sustainable competitive advantage (SCA). However, mentoring is often confused with coaching. The focus of coaching is the workplace performance of an individual. It is task based and short-term. The focus of mentoring is the personal and professional development of the individual. It is long-term and relationship based. From 2014 to 2016 a study investigated mentoring in the consulting engineering industry. The study involved in-depth interviews with 53 individuals (16 Baby Boomers, 18 Generation Xers and 19 Millennials) in eight companies in western Canada. The companies ranged in size from international, national and regional companies to a two-person consultancy. The study included the development of informal and formal mentoring relationships and the effectiveness of these relationships. This enabled observations to be made regarding approaches to the management of mentoring in companies.
The companies represented a range of approaches to mentoring. At one end, mentoring was informal, with it being an implicit expectation that senior staff mentor junior staff. At the other end, mentoring was very formalized, structured and prescriptive, with it being managed by the Human Resources Department. Within this range of approaches, different incentives or reward structures were enacted by the companies. For example, providing charge codes for mentoring time and expenses, employees signing mentoring contracts, recognizing mentors through a ‘mentor appreciation day,’ holding mentoring ‘speed dating’ events to match mentors and mentees, formalized mentoring meeting schedules, and formal reporting of meeting outcomes.
Formal mentoring relationships involved the assignment of a mentor to a mentee. In some cases, the mentee selected the mentor, or the mentor was assigned as part of the company’s performance evaluation process. The assignment process involved matching mentors with mentees based on mutual respect, technical discipline, roles and experience. Formal mentoring relationships can be ‘forced’ and ‘mechanical’. Informal mentoring relationships developed through a variety of methods. These comprised the mentors and mentees working together on projects, through a senior person (mentor) having hired the individual (mentee), a senior person just seeing a need for talent development in more junior staff, and the relationships simply evolving from the senior person’s supervisory role. In some cases, the mentee actively recruited the mentor (role-model recruitment). Informal mentoring relationships developed organically through mentors and mentees working and interacting together.
Management thinker Peter Drucker is often quoted as saying that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” In other words, you can’t know whether or not you are successful unless success is defined and tracked. So, what constitutes success in the context of mentoring and how can it be measured? The study investigated the effectiveness of formal and informal mentoring systems. Interviewees’ companies had either an informal mentoring system only, or both a formal and an informal mentoring system. Interviewees were asked to estimate the percentage of people in their group, office or company that had a mentoring relationship of either kind. This was termed the ‘take-up‘ percentage. The interviewees were also asked to estimate the percentage of these individuals who were in a meaningful mentoring relationship. This was termed the ‘meaningfulness’ percentage. Mentoring system effectiveness was calculated by multiplying the take-up percentage by the meaningfulness percentage. Informal mentoring in organizations with a formal mentoring system appeared to be the most effective at 55 percent, followed by informal mentoring in organizations with no formal mentoring at 42 percent. Formal mentoring had only a 36 percent effectiveness.
The effectiveness of informal mentoring in companies with a formal mentoring system was attributed to mentoring being openly discussed, promoted and encouraged by senior management and mentoring being an explicit expectation of senior staff. In this situation, informal mentoring will flourish. Informal mentoring relationships that develop organically also tend to be more meaningful than ‘forced’ and ‘mechanical’ formal mentoring relationships. In the study, people involved in informal mentoring relationship indicated that mentoring would benefit from more structure and accountability for defined goals and objectives, training on mentoring and more frequent interactions between mentors and mentees. Those involved in formal mentoring relationships indicated that mentoring would benefit from building stronger and better relationships, having more non-work-related interactions between mentors and mentees, and a greater focus on professional rather than technical development.
The method of measuring mentoring success used in the study was subjective. Management typically prefers a more objective measurement of success such as What is the return on the investment (ROI) in mentoring, and will that return manifest itself in either the short or the long-term? The cost of mentoring to a company can be quantified directly in terms of the time committed to it by both the mentors and the mentees. However, the ROI from mentoring is hard to quantify directly as the benefits to the company are invariably long-term. For example, reduced staff turnover, enhanced recruitment, improved succession planning, more passionate, committed and happy employees, and the development of more competent, confident and self-sufficient employees quicker. All of these benefits tend to be long-term rather than the short-term.
Meaningful mentoring relationships are based on mutual respect and trust, that develop over time. It is an organic process that does not lend itself to formalized structures and management. The challenge in managing mentoring is to maximize the benefits of mentoring for the mentors, the mentees and for the company. This requires management to find the ‘sweet spot’ in the informal-formal range of approaches to mentoring that is compatible with the company’s corporate culture. The intent here is not to recommend a particular ‘sweet spot’ and prescribe certain actions, rather it is to suggest a philosophy to maximize mentoring, irrespective of where a company positions itself in the informal-formal range of approaches to mentoring.
Management should focus on nurturing mentoring relationships and processes in the company, while avoiding micromanaging mentoring. Management can best achieve this by establishing and articulating expectations (goals and objectives) for mentoring, allocating and measuring time for mentoring, having senior members of staff actively supporting and promoting mentoring through words and actions, recognizing and rewarding valued mentors and appointing individual(s) to be accountable for mentoring.
As the vice president of one company noted, “It is difficult to get people to commit to a formal program,” and a Principal in another company noted “Mentoring is a very hard thing for companies to drive because it’s very personal, very interpersonal. People try to break it down, again, it’s more of an organic process than it is a structural process”.
About the author:
Bryan Leach is a Calgary-based adult educator, Professional Engineer in Alberta and a Chartered Engineer in the UK. In addition to his technical training in geology and geotechnical engineering, he has a Certificate in Adult and Workplace Learning and a Masters in Continuing Education specializing in Leadership and Development in Organizations. He has over 40 years of professional experience, much of which has involved managing multi-disciplinary project teams. Bryan has lived and worked in England Hong Kong, Canada and Italy. On taking early retirement in 2009, he established his personal consulting practice specializing in knowledge management, organizational learning and facilitation. From 2014 to 2016, Bryan conducted a study into mentoring in the consulting engineering industry. This led him to write the book ‘Mentoring: Generational Perspectives’ published in 2017. During his career, Bryan has published papers and articles on a range of technical and management subjects. He has also been an invited speaker to technical organizations both in Canada and abroad. In recent years, he has been invited to speak to organizations and companies in Alberta on the subjects of knowledge management, career management and mentoring.