At a glance
- A formal mentorship program can provide a mentor with the right tools to effectively convey knowledge and expertise accumulated over the course of a career.
- Aside from the benefit of learning more about their respective organisations, mentees are given opportunities to improve their skills in strategic thinking, networking and stakeholder engagement.
- In turn, mentors stand to benefit from the experience with improved listening skills and empathy.
Paul Viney FCPA has been both a mentee and a mentor, and is in no doubt about the advantages mentoring offers.
The CFO at Tasmania-based Elphinstone Group, a manufacturer of mining and rail maintenance products, says the mentoring he received as a younger man was largely informal and was the result of having the good fortune to be around senior people who were genuinely interested in his development as a CPA.
These days, companies prefer a more structured approach to mentoring. This is because multiple research studies show that participants in mentoring programs report a significant improvement in their abilities to think strategically, lead teams, influence stakeholders and network.
They also feel much more engaged in their work and committed to their employer, reducing turnover.
For Viney, the tables have turned, and now he is the one helping guide more junior accountants as part of CPA Australia’s mentoring program.
“I found it’s like putting on a different hat,” says Viney. “You realise just how many bits and pieces of knowledge and skill you have absorbed all through your career. The advantage of a formal mentoring program is that it gives you so many additional tools to better convey that knowledge, and it has made the conversations I have with mentees more structured.”
One of the biggest challenges any mentor-mentee relationship faces is allocating time to step away from day-to-day work and focus on the bigger picture.
“Because we are all busy, mentors and mentees have the same issues of time pressure. But by drawing on my experience, I have been able to say, here is a shortcut, have you considered this?”, Viney says.
Being a mentor is far from a one-way street. Viney reflects that, over the past several years and particularly since becoming a mentor, he has “become much better at actively listening. This is definitely a trait that comes with age and maturity, and is a core skill for any mentor.”
The insider's view
Mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all relationship. There are many ways to design and deliver a mentoring program. What is appropriate for each individual will depend on the organisation they work for, its size and structure, and its specific business needs.
For in-house or company-run programs, mentors will typically be senior managers who have been identified and trained to provide mentoring to junior employees from different departments. That separation is necessary to avoid conflicts of interest and ensure participants feel confident about speaking freely about the challenges they face.
Having a mentor from within the organisation can really help a mentee understand the organisation they are working for, says Professor Julie Cogin, deputy vice-chancellor business and law and vice-president of the College of Business at RMIT University.
“The advantages of talking to an individual, with complete confidentiality, who can be a sounding board for ideas, problems and challenges, is of great benefit. Mentors can help you understand the unwritten rules [of an organisation], provide a map for the uncharted corridors to power and reveal ‘the business behind the business’,” she says.
Space for reflection
External mentoring programs provided by mentoring and coaching consultancies are different, primarily because they offer a neutral space for mentees away from their workplace.
They are valuable for the access they offer to senior executives from different sectors who can be objective, offer unique perspectives and are more at liberty to pose tricky questions. Mentees often feel more relaxed talking about the challenges they face with someone outside their organisation.
There are also many private companies that will help a business to set up their own internal mentoring program or run one for them. Serendis Leadership is one of these. The company has been running cross-sector mentoring programs for organisations – including the Women in Banking and Finance (WiBF) – since 2010.
Founding director Maud Lindley has some useful insights about what makes a good mentor and mentee.
“A mentor should find a good balance between sharing their own experience, providing confidence and clarity, acting as a sounding board and also being able to instil change, action and positive impact for the mentee,” says Lindley.
Great mentors are able to elicit energy and commitment from the mentees by asking the right questions and listening with empathy. Gently challenging perceptions by providing a different perspective helps mentees grow, she says.
On the other side of the equation, a mentee should be driven and clear about what they want to achieve, setting deliberate goals with the help of their mentor at the very beginning. “They should enter the relationship prepared to take action outside of their comfort zone,” says Lindley.
“The biggest hurdle, particularly at mid-stage in a mentee’s career, is to dedicate enough time to move out of day-to-day deliverables and focus on strategic reflection. They need to step on to that balcony,” Lindley says.
How to handle a mismatch
Even with the right attitude and requisite skills, like in any relationship, the chemistry between a mentor and mentee might be lacking.
Lindley says she has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of mentoring relationships, and thinks she has a good understanding of what makes a successful match.
“Without trust and rapport, people can’t be open and genuine about their fears and challenges, and the relationship dies its own death. There has to be authentic discussion. If conversations are awkward, full of small talk, then the mentoring is ineffective as neither participant is getting any value from it,” says Lindley.
By contrast, two individuals who share similar values and understand each other’s environment are more in sympathy. They can relate, because the mentor has gone through similar experiences that the mentee is struggling with, or else is passionate about the issues the mentee is working on and has overcome those same limitations.
It is this safe space that allows the best mentoring relationships to thrive, says Lindley.
“I recall one woman saying to me, ‘I was able to lay my guts on the table, and felt this was someone who was really able to understand me’.”
The ultimate objective
Another frequent cause of a mentoring relationship derailing is when there is not enough preparation beforehand or the strategy is unclear, says Cogin.
“The mentee arrives without having clarity around what they want to get from the time together. So they go along, and talk about something on the fly, rather than working with a mentor on a specific career objective.”
Cogin says the mentee should be asked specifically what they are seeking from a mentoring arrangement.
“If they are looking for international experience, for example, then how can they be matched up with the right mentor who can help them in that specific way? That’s often the missing ingredient.”
For an internal mentoring scheme, buy-in from the top of the organisation is also crucial for success. If senior management does not get behind the program, then it will be hard for employees to be released to act as mentors, says Cogin.
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Face-to-face mentoring has been a victim of the pandemic, with many relationships moving online.
“In the virtual world, mentoring has continued to provide much needed personal support, particularly at a time when people are feeling isolated, and it has helped organisations to maintain employee engagement,” says Lindley.
She expects that the desire for human connection means face-to-face learning will resume when people are not constrained by social distancing requirements. However, the pandemic experience has offered insight into how more flexible, hybrid mentoring relationships might work in the future, with some face-to-face and some virtual discussions.
Steps to make the online mentoring environment more user-friendly are already under way. Serendis has launched a new online mentoring platform, MentorKey, to provide personalised support to mentors and mentees to ask the right questions, set impactful goals and take action between sessions.
Art of Mentoring and Mentorloop also offer mentoring software platforms that match mentees and mentors, provide training for participants and help companies custom design and manage in-house programs and track their progress. Their clients include Xero and the Australian Taxation Office.
Yet perhaps the most significant change that the move to online mentoring heralds is the ability to transcend geographical boundaries.
Drawing mentors and mentees from different countries, types of economies and social settings opens up exciting opportunities for learning and development. This is an opportunity likely to be hastened due to the growth in remote working caused by the pandemic.
Coaching vs mentoring: the key differences
“Coaching is more performance-driven, designed to improve the professional’s on-the-job performance, and can be quite short term. Mentoring is more development-driven and longer term, looking not just at the professional’s current job function, but beyond, taking a more holistic approach to career development,” says Christine Zust, coach and professional development expert from Kent State University in the US.
Coaches are hired for their expertise in a particular area – one in which the individual is seeking to improve, such as influencing skills or strategic acumen. Mentors have more seniority and expertise in a specific area than mentees. The mentee can test their ideas, be inspired and learn from the mentor’s experience, says Zust.
“In coaching, a coach and his or her client will set the agenda together to meet the needs of the client, whereas in mentoring the agenda is set by the mentee and supported by the mentor.”