October doesn’t feel like the best time to sit and reflect or waste time asking for advice. Autumn is one of the busiest times of the year. What we need in October is action, not conversation. But then it never really feels like a good time for this kind of stuff, despite the fact that mentoring is widely regarded as valuable. In a recent Forbes magazine poll, 71% of CEOs surveyed said they were certain that company performance had improved as a result of mentoring activity. Sun Microsystems increased employee retention by 72% for mentees and 69% for mentors. An improved bottom line caused by something that feels like a waste of time.

What does mentoring do for the mentors?

For many of us, the thought of putting time aside to talk through someone else’s work challenges can feel like a low priority. But mentoring helps people overcome challenges without running in to costly ‘learning curve’ mistakes. Action can be costly, if it is inexperienced and misdirected. The avoidance of financial downsides is a great reason for encouraging people to mentor each other.

But also let’s not forget that mentoring is a ‘giving’ activity. As such, it can be extremely rewarding for the people providing advice or support. Acting as a mentor can help re-affirm our own sense of worth. The process of thinking through someone else’s problems and putting forward possible solutions is a fantastic exercise for making you realise what you know and what you are capable of tackling.

Often after mentoring conversations there is a sense of ‘I didn’t know I knew that’. Plus we are all much more fearless tackling challenges in the abstract – someone else’s skydive is a great deal easier to talk about rationally, than the one we face ourselves.

What do the mentees get out of it?

Being inside a façade that outwardly says ‘I know what I’m doing’ is a lonely place to sit, if in reality, you don’t. There is a marked contrast between this, and the sense of relief brought by talking openly about a work problem. People with very similar levels of ability can work at very different levels of output, if self-doubt is at play. Not knowing who to turn to for fear of inadvertently telling your boss you are useless, can be debilitating.

Different mentoring models – which works best?

Mentoring is generally associated with coaching that comes from someone ‘outside’ of your own organisation. The objectivity this brings is great for allowing people to be far more open, particularly if the challenges being discussed are people-related. But external mentors are often hard to come by and the wealth of experience within your own firm should not be overlooked. Besides, there is nothing to stop you setting up an informal co-mentoring scheme with another company, if external objectivity is an absolute necessity.

Cross-departmental mentoring can help people tackle specific problems, and can also get people working more effectively across silos.  Another very interesting aspect of mentoring is the cross-generational dimension.

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The adolescent brain – anyone between the ages of 16 and 23 has one of these – is likely to value novelty and peer recognition over rigorous analysis of action and consequence. Please note that I am talking about core biological impulses, not the relative maturity of any given individual. By contrast, older brains are likely to draw back from risk-taking activity and act in line with learned experience. In these times of constant disruption, there is a tendency for companies to value youthful energy over experience. To my mind though, youth and experience are best deployed in balanced measure. Particularly, if you can get them working together well.

People tend to gel better with those more likely to understand their cultural references. It’s only natural. But cross-generational mentoring can unlock skill sets that often look like double-dutch from the other side of the fence. Where traditionally, mentoring has been a process of experience handing down knowledge to a new generation, now it is much more powerful as a two-way talent exchange.

Today is National Mentoring Day in the UK. Maybe there has never been a better time to set something up after all.

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