Mentors

As baby boomers get set to retire in the next 10 to 15 years, employers face the challenge of how to fill the vacant positions with trained personnel. There’s a simple solution to the problem: Mentoring. It’s an important tool for employers wanting to avoid the knowledge and skill gap left when staff start to retire.

We have observed that companies are starting to introduce mentoring programs in their organizations.

And we applaud those efforts. As research indicates, there are many benefits to mentoring.

What is it? Mentoring refers to a relationship between an experienced staffer and a less experienced individual. The experience and influence mentors offer allows junior staff to gain the confidence and skills to advance in the organization.

Mentors help staff acquire knowledge about the job and the organization and they help protégés gain access to informal social networks within the organization. While formal channels (job postings, intranets, newsletters) can provide junior staff with information about career advancement, informal contact such as lunch meetings, golf dates, social events, special projects can provide a chance to showcase nascent skills and talent to decision-makers.

A recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology indicated staff that have been mentored do better in their careers than those without mentors. Tammy Allen, Elizabeth Lentz, Lizzette Lima of the University of South Florida and Lillian Eby of the University of Georgia and Mark Poteet of Organizational Research and Solutions, in Florida, found that mentoring benefits junior employees in a number of ways:

Mentored staff receive greater compensation and salary growth, tend to be promoted more and are more satisfied with their jobs. Employees with mentors believe they are more likely to advance in their careers, are more committed to the job overall and are more likely to stay at the organization. And that benefits the company.

Yet, pairing senior staff with their juniors does not always ensure that an effective mentoring relationship will flourish. Mentors must provide both career support and psychological assistance to their protégés. While they don’t need to be career counsellors or psychologists, they do need to help staff learn the ropes within a safe and respectful relationship.

There are five roles that effective mentors can take on to benefit their protégés and the organization:

1. Advocate
Effective mentors recognize that they must advocate for their less experienced protégé. This means introducing the junior staffer to decision-makers, connecting the protégé to projects that provide experience and social contacts. Less- experienced people sometimes need protection while they learn new skills or network. Mentors can be instrumental in correcting mistakes junior staff may make, too.

2. Coach
Providing a protégé with opportunities to shine is part of the mentor’s mandate. Finding activities where protégés are highly visible and exposing them to situations that highlight their strengths is helpful. As a trusted coach, the mentor can guide a junior staff person through activities, situations and relationships that increase their visibility in the organization. Encouraging junior staff to assist on an important project, take on tasks independently with support or lead an initiative that matches their skills will provide protégés with positive experience and boost their confidence.

3. Teacher
Mentors are required to take a teaching role by giving protégés challenging assignments. While junior staff need to be protected while they learn, effective mentors help them push past their perceived limits. Offering less experienced staff an opportunity to take on more responsibility, try something risky or develop a new skill, indicates to the staff member that the mentor has faith in their ability and prepares the protégé for the future.

4. Role Model
Effective mentors are role models. Protégés learn by example. By observing senior leaders in action, they glean tips on how to behave in the organization, note the rules that govern conduct and learn how to treat other members of the company. Junior staff observe how to perform certain tasks, and learn what is acceptable and what is not. It is important that mentors understand they are under a microscope when guiding a junior staff person–any bad habits, from negative interpersonal relations to poor safety practices, will be noted, just as the mentor’s strengths and professional practices will be emulated.

5. Supporter
Mentors provide support to protégés by sharing the ups and downs of their junior partner’s progress. There is camaraderie between the two, characterized by mutual respect and a willingness to listen. Mentors must remain ethical in their relationships with protégés and recognize that the supportive role is one-way: the mentor is the protégé’s supporter while the protégé is not the mentor’s “friend”. For example, if mentors are under stress, they need to share this information where appropriate or talk to a colleague of equal status.

Sometimes people are reluctant to be mentors, saying it’s time consuming, or distracting. Others have concerns about being replaced, upstaged or redundant, so decline to mentor. A lack of organizational support can also prevent mentoring relationships from forming, especially if “mentoring” becomes a code-word for downloading unsavoury tasks to junior staff.

These pitfalls do exist, but future business success and longevity, in part, will be determined by the quality of the junior staff. Handing the organization over to an unprepared workforce is a recipe for failure. Dedicating time and thought to mentoring relationships at work, will pay off in the long-run and serve as a positive legacy to the organization.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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