This post is for professional service firms who are thinking of starting a mentoring program or who have one and are wondering why it's not a brilliant success.
Assigning mentors doesn't work. And internal mentoring programs are rife with problems.
If you joined your firm before so-called 'mentoring programs' were all the rage, answer the following questions:
- Who were/are your mentors?
- Were they within the organization in which you worked or were they outside of it?
- Did you select them or did they select you? (I'd bet money that no one assigned them to you)
Can a real mentor be selected by anyone but you anymore than your spouse ought to be chosen by someone other than you? (Yeah, I know that this is still done in various cultures, but how often does it work out really, really well?)
Your mentor was probably someone you encountered somewhere in your journey other than your present workplace. And I’d venture to guess that your mentor was somebody who saw promise in you and mutually admired them, and you clicked.
Mentoring is a relationship. Whether you initiated it or they did, at some point you asked their advice and they gave it. And whether you realized it or not, you also brought something to the relationship that they enjoyed. The relationship blossomed and you came to deeply value their opinions, their counsel, and maybe even their approval.
Being mentored takes an open-mindedness that can only be “heartfelt” and never "required."
It requires a blend of respect for the mentor and trust that when you expose your vulnerability (because you must in order to grow with the guidance of a mentor), they will protect it and won’t judge it, exploit it, or broadcast it.
Being a mentor requires a sincere desire to help the mentee succeed. It requires seeing in the mentee that ‘special something’ that they want to foster. And it is not something that can be done half-heartedly. As much as the mentee must have genuine desire for the mentor's guidance, the mentor cannot fake or feign his or her role.
Mentoring isn’t something that can be done once a month over a lunch hour. And “progress” can’t be measured objectively. It has to be judged.
MENTORING WITHIN A FIRM
When a mentor and mentee work together in a direct or indirect reporting relationship (ie the mentor has influence over compensation and advancement), there are barriers for either party to be totally “real” with each other, not the least of which is a mentee's desire for advancement and the fear that weaknesses will be held against him at promotion time.
Further, when one’s boss is the mentor, a mentee can be perceived as “a pet employee” because the boss “protects” him or her (a natural role for a mentor). It doesn’t serve either person well among his/her peers when the mentor could be viewed as displaying favoritism and the mentee perceived as a brown-noser--a label which can be unfairly applied when a direct report becomes "close" to a boss.
Having a mentor within one’s company is risky and is generally not very appealing to the mentee. Selecting a mentor outside of one's company alleviates these concerns and provides a level of objectivity the mentee really needs from her mentor.
How the mentor/mentee are paired is becomes quite problematic. Assigning can’t work. That respect/care and trust/vulnerability has to be heartfelt and real.
Some firms think they get around this by "letting" their team members select their mentor from among the partners or managers.
What typically happens is that the same few people the firm are chosen by all, and nobody selects the others. Ouch. Feelings get hurt. And damage is done because it's apparent who's "looked up to" and who isn't. And the chosen few are overwhelmed and they really aren’t inspired to mentor a ton of people (if any at all).
It seems to me that firms are confusing apprenticeship, or the role of preceptor, with “mentoring.”
I don’t think these are the same as mentoring. I could be wrong. I think what you are actually wanting to accomplish is KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER.
Maybe all this is semantics, but it seems to me that words do matter. I think having a forced internal initiative that you call a “mentoring program” is simply fodder for frustration on everyone’s part. It's pretty much a waste of time and energy. And it's kind of insulting to boot.
In other words, it's very possibly delivering the reverse of the effect you desire. Most “mentoring programs” fall flat in firms--considered laughable by the team members and dreaded by the leadership.
It is probably transfer of knowledge that is the most needed and least attended aspect of the continuity of a professional practice.
Instead, I would recommend one of two approaches:
1. Do create a mentoring program but encourage people to find a career/business mentor “anywhere.” Identify him/her, ask them to be their mentor (a good classic post on this over at Escape From Cubicle Nation), see if the person is into it, connect regularly, and then, in the firm, get together as a group periodically to discuss the experience and share a recent learning.
Perhaps if someone doesn’t want to seek out a mentor, perhaps they will seek out a mentee (again, “anywhere”) and they, too, can share their learnings. A purpose of this would be to show that you value REAL mentoring and that you believe it is important for everyone to have someone who is a career mentor for them.
2. Set up an “apprenticeship program” instead if that is what you are really after (teaching people judgment, behaviors and skills) and create learning goals and objectives. Again, transfer of knowledge is the most needed and least attended aspect in the professions.
Unlike a "mentoring program," an "apprenticeship program" doesn't imply that you have to seek a person's career guidance and advice, but it does imply that the junior person can identify traits and skills to admire and emulate from VARIOUS leaders in the firm. And leaders can identify, from each other, traits and skills to OFFER and give, as a gift, to their team members.
Successful people do have mentors (whether the mentor knows that s/he serves this role or not!). But they select their own or really just evolve into the relationship. It's actually a pretty natural behavior for humans and typically begins with admiration and respect.
Let's call things what they really are and work on knowledge transfer as its own effort without trying to force the issue of internal mentoring where it is complicated with politics. Mentoring is best left to individual choice.