In Need of a Mentor? Join the Club

Much has been made—rightly so—of the need for mentors to nurture women and minorities in the workforce, but when you think about it, why don’t we all have mentors? I’ve found that not only are mentors for women and minorities lacking in corporate America, but that no one I know has a mentor.

Mentoring is a low- to no-cost way for organizations to give employees added, on-the-job support. You could argue it’s the best on-the-job aid that’s ever been invented. No expensive technology required, and what’s better than asking questions of a person who has done your specific job before? The only cost is the mentor’s and mentee’s time, but it’s probably much more time-consuming and inefficient for an employee to sit confused and overwhelmed for hours about a new assignment rather than just picking up the phone or taking the elevator up a floor or two to a trusty mentor for advice.

Unfortunately, too many organizations are overlooking this great, low-cost tool. Many mid- to senior-level businesswomen have never had a formal mentor, according to new trend research conducted by Development Dimensions International (DDI) titled, “Women as Mentors: Does She or Doesn’t She? A Global Study of Businesswomen and Mentoring.”

Only half of survey participants work at organizations that have formal mentoring programs. Of those that do, training is often ineffective. Twenty percent of women in the study rated the quality of the formal training they received as high or very high and another 22 percent didn’t receive any formal training at all. Compounding the problem, mentors aren’t being armed with the interpersonal skills (coaching, networking, and influencing) they need to be effective in their roles.

Seventy-five percent of women in the study reported that the time it takes to mentor most affects their decision to accept mentorships. Yet, only one in 10 chose not to mentor because it interfered with family time or other commitments. Criteria coming in second are subject matter expertise and relationship to the mentee. More than half—54 percent—cite these as key considerations when deciding to accept a mentorship or not.

It seems that the time element for both mentors and mentees probably is a big obstacle to mentorships. So, if you decide a mentoring program is in order at your company, why not help ease the time challenge? You can do this by allowing entry-level and mid-level employees to count time spent with a mentor as fulfillment of required training hours, and you can incentivize mentors by offering an extra week of vacation time annually as a thank you for serving as mentor. You also could work it out with mentors’ supervisors that they should be given a certain amount of leeway with deadlines if they can prove that (reasonable) added time to meet a deadline is needed due to time devoted to helping their mentee.

The vision companies have of mentoring should be expanded. Many companies may envision mentoring solely as something that happens between a senior-level employee and a mid-level or junior employee. But mentoring also can happen with people who are at about the same level in a company—in the form of what you might call job shadowing. Instead of having a new employee job shadow for just a week or two after being hired, you could expand it, so the person who has been promoted or moved laterally serves as a long-term, continuing resource for the new hire. A mentor can be defined as someone who isn’t necessarily senior to an employee, but, rather, simply more knowledgeable.

One interesting thought is the idea of reverse mentoring, whereby the mentee becomes the mentor. A mentor may find herself calling her young, tech-savvy mentee in a panic because she can’t figure out how to get that pesky content management system to work, how to input her expenses, or how to use the company’s intranet.

Ideally, trainers believe in a lifetime of learning. That respect for the never-ending process of learning can be leveraged to create enthusiasm in your organization for employees to learn from one another. The company’s culture should make it apparent that employees don’t need to wait for a formal training program to learn from co-workers, whether they are senior, mid-level, or junior to them. The mentor we’ve been waiting for may be sitting across the cubicle aisle.

Does your organization have a fully functional, well-used mentoring program? How do you help make it easier for mentors and mentees to work together?