The art of mentoring

With the economy in a downturn and careers at the crossroads, a strong mentoring program is crucial to guide staff through the tough times and ensure your best workers stay with you. LEON GETTLER explains how the best mentoring programs work and reveals w

By Leon Gettler

Mentors make a comeback
With the economy in a downturn and careers at the crossroads, a strong mentoring program is crucial to guide staff through the tough times and ensure your best workers stay with you.

Sure, hard work and talent are keys to building strong careers. But often, it’s not what you know but who you know – having someone who can help you find the right career road map can make all the difference. Enter the mentor.

John Matthews, a director of the Institute of Executive Coaching, says that dropping mentoring at a time of job losses and cutbacks would be wrong. At times of slowdown, mentoring is even more important.

“Lots of times, the fuzzy people stuff is the first thing they cut out,” Matthews says. “That’s a mistake. If you can get people thinking beyond a survival mentality of ‘what do we have to cut?’, it’s about how we are going to continue to get the best out of those who we still have. For those that are remaining, how do you get them to adapt to change?”

And during this downturn, it might be important for people to hear from someone who has experienced slowdowns and recessions. This is particularly critical this time around, with many people in their 30s today having never experienced tough times.

“It’s great for mentors to talk about having gone through downturns in the market, and what lessons they have learnt about sustainability. Resilience is a key issue,” Matthews says. “The other thing we encourage is for people to tell their war stories, but to tell them very short. You tell your war stories with a point, so that this generation, which hasn’t gone through rough times, would understand.”

The hollowing out of middle management has also placed increased importance on mentoring. Many younger staff are being promoted with relatively little experience or background and without spending much time working for somebody who was a role model.

Should mentoring be formal or informal? How many mentors does a person need? Mentoring is no science and there are as many different answers to these questions as there are practioners.

Why mentor?

The big accounting firms and the banks, industries that are battling skills shortages, have been doing it for years. They seem to have it honed down to an art.

Deloitte, for example, has employees mentored from the moment they walk through the door, starting with an informal program that lasts for about six months and then moving to a formal program. The firm has teamed with an organisation called Chief Executive Women to provide female staff with guidance from outside the organisation.

Deloitte has also brought in a radical “reverse mentoring” model, where juniors mentor partners, providing them with insights about employees and feedback on leadership styles.

Alec Bashinsky, national partner for people and performance at Deloitte, admits the idea of “reverse mentoring” was challenging for some staff. “It was hard to come to grips with at the early stages, but it’s proven to be a roaring success.”

Mentoring is also used by small to medium sized business, but the expectations there are completely different.

Bernadette Crompton, whose company Perspective Solutions has provided mentoring for more than 100 companies, says SMEs are focused more on their product. “They want to focus on marketing, raising capital and commercialising the product, whereas the larger companies are focused more on people and resource issues.”

While mentoring is commonly used to develop future leaders, experts say it is also good for building morale and retention practices.

Frederick Davidson runs davidson lifeplan3, which helps senior executives negotiate the last phase of their careers and post-career life. He has mentored many young staff during his career and argues employees are more likely to withstand approaches of head hunters if they had career plans developed in conjunction with a mentor.

“The biggest cause of people leaving organisations when headhunters come to them is not that they don’t like the organisations, but that they are unclear on what the progression is going to be and there is clarity offered to them by the headhunter,’’ Davidson says.

“It’s a needless loss of people. With a plan, that person can say ‘no, I know where I am going here, I know what the progression is, it’s likely to be something I want to do’,” he says.

“A mentor needs to be able to do a career strategy plan with an individual and look at what the courses of action are for their career. You look at what gaps there are in terms of people achieving that progression and how to fill those gaps.”

Of course it’s not only the mentor that is responsible for the success of the mentoring program – the person being mentored must be able to take on issues, some of them difficult and confronting.

Davidson says women are better at it. “I have found that individuals who are most responsive to the mentoring continuously have been highly successful women, women you know about and read about all the time.

“They have been the ones most receptive to the input. They have self-confidence, but it’s a balanced self-confidence. Men get into trouble because sometimes they are not listening that hard. Women are listening virtually all the time.”

What makes a good mentor?

Experts say the person should also be someone who can be trusted and who has runs on the board from their time in the business world.

Obviously being a good listener is an important attribute. But specialists say the real skill lies in picking up what is being said between the lines and detecting the hints of self-doubt that a younger staff member would not normally discuss with a manager.

It also means asking the hard questions that help the person being mentored understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Paul Smith, chief executive of the Carnegie Management Group and one of Australia’s 12 accredited executive mentors, says: “The mentor needs to be able to challenge but not dominate the client. It means opening up their minds to what could be, as opposed to what currently is. That means the mentor has to push the envelope.

“If the client complains that their manager is giving them a hard time, ask how they would handle that, or ask the sorts of questions that might get them to see it from the manager’s perspective.”

Take the example of a client running a start-up. A good mentor will listen to their business plan, their vision for the business and innovative new ideas, and then start asking some hard questions. How many hours do you think you’ll need to work? Can you hack the initial 24/7 pace? How will you balance that with your family life? Are you taking on too much?

Formal or informal?

Views are divided on whether mentoring should be formal or informal. Some argue that it’s best kept formal, controlled by the human resources department – an informal process is more likely to be scrapped under pressure.

But National Australia Bank sees the benefits of having an informal component. While up to 400 might be involved in the formal mentoring program, there might be another 300 doing it informally.

Kylie Bishop, NAB’s head of leadership and talent says: “What we are really trying to move to is more of an informal relationship, so that all our employees understand that this is just the way we do things around here.”

NAB sends its mentors to workshops to teach them communication and listening skills. People getting mentored are also trained, so that they are aware it is a two-way relationship.

In October, NAB plans to use web 2.0 tools to create a sort of mentoring marketplace, allowing people to check who is mentoring, what they offer and who is looking for guidance.

How many mentors should a person have?

Once again, views are divided. “It depends on what areas you want mentoring,” John Matthews says. “I know some people have three or four mentors. They have an external mentor, like an ex-boss who has retired who they catch up with every now and then. They can also have a person higher up in the organisation that can help them network and develop a much larger context for their career options.”

But Paul Smith says having too many would lead to the person receiving too many mixed messages. “It just creates a lot of conflict in the person’s mind,’’ Smith says.


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