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Mentoring: The intelligent network


Mentoring has ancient and established roots yet is often seen as a modern approach to staff development. In essence learning from someone more experienced and hopefully wiser, Annie Hayes finds that a successful mentoring programme not only encourages staff to develop and share their knowledge but can have added benefits such as retention.

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is often confused with coaching. The terms are used interchangeably, rolling off the tongue in a merry-go-round of terminology where professionals mistake one for the other.

But John McGurk, learning, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) says that they are not the same thing at all: "If I want someone to show me how to do something then I need a mentor, but if I want to be shown how to do something myself then I need a coach." Any clearer? I thought not.

Photo of Professor David Clutterbuck"The retention levels between people who are mentored and people who are not are typically three to one - sometimes even higher."

Professor David Clutterbuck, Clutterbuck Associates

Professor David Clutterbuck, of Clutterbuck Associates, a coaching and mentoring consultancy, sheds some light on the distinction and remarks that mentoring is about long-term development. A point in difference that the CIPD concurs with in its factsheet on the subject. "Traditionally, mentoring is the long-term passing on of support, guidance and advice."

Looking at the origins of the word helps - it comes from the Greek myth where Odysseus entrusted the education of his son to his friend Mentor. So mentoring, says the CIPD, is a form of apprenticeship, whereby an inexperienced learner learns the tricks of the trade from an experienced colleague, backed up by offsite training.

According to Anna Britnor Guest, joint managing director of The Coaching & Mentoring Network, one of the most common forms of mentoring is aimed at helping 'high potential' employees to develop up the management chain, but mentoring for performance improvement, in support of change initiatives and executive mentoring, is also popular. "So too are schemes aimed at particular populations – for instance BT has run a very successful e-mentoring programme within their Minority Ethnic Network."


Clutterbuck says that mentoring plays an incredibly important role in ensuring the business continues to be successful over time: "Mentors provide the link between generations."

It's a benefit that accountancy powerhouse, Ernst & Young has picked up on. Richard Gartside, HR director at the firm, says that in his organisation, mentors are used to extend the counsellor/counselled relationship from development, in the context of current roles and career paths, to personal development more generally. "Not only do our people have their manager/counsellor but they can also choose to have a formal mentor or many unofficial mentors throughout the business. In a competitive and fast-paced world, these can also provide both business development advice and pastoral care if needed."

However, it's not just business continuity that is proving advantageous. According to Clutterbuck, mentoring is also a powerful lever for improved retention: "The retention levels between people who are mentored and people who are not are typically three to one - sometimes even higher."

An impressive statistic; and McGurk says that retention works both ways: "The experienced person passes on their insight and is able to build self-esteem, whilst the mentee benefits from someone who has gone down the ski slopes themselves and can learn from their triumphs."

Gartside says that another advantage is the bringing together of people from across the business: "Mentoring transcends the different areas and roles within the business; the system provides a range of inspiration and advice on the broader development agenda as the mentor is often not from within the same area or role as the mentee."

The upside is easy to see - it creates a more powerful internal network across a business such as Ernst & Young and exposes people to different skills, disciplines, career paths and personal development opportunities.

Gartside says it can also do wonders for building a positive culture: "It encourages a people friendly culture and helps the personal development of both the mentor and mentee."

So can anyone pick up the mentoring baton and is it appropriate for all disciplines and industries?

Good mentor, bad mentor

  • Purpose - of the mentoring programme

  • Fit - with other development initiatives

  • Target - mentee and mentor population

  • Support - how the organisation culture will support or hinder the adoption and sustainability of the mentoring programme

  • Recommended logistics - how often do mentor and mentee meet, what is the nature of their communication etc

  • Mentor/mentee matching - how does the company assign the right mentor to the mentee?

  • Guidelines, codes of practice and support for the mentor - setting the rules

  • Mentor training - what, where, how

  • Measurement - how will the organisation know it's successful?

  • Expansion - successful programmes tend to attract increasing requests for mentoring!

Source: The Association for Coaching

Clutterbuck believes that effective mentors are volunteers, who have a track record of developing others and developing themselves: "They need some practical experience in the general area, in which the mentee wants to grow, but don't have to be an expert - this is not about the detail of a particular job. That's a role for a traditional coach."

At Ernst & Young, the firm differentiates between formal and informal mentoring and picks out champions accordingly: "At an informal level, any individual can approach a colleague or individual outside the firm and ask them to act as a mentor on a temporary or ongoing basis. On a more formal level, the firm seeks to instigate processes to match those interested in acting as mentors with those who are seeking a mentor," says Gartside.

Sector and profession does have a bearing on the success of some mentoring schemes. McGurk comments that where the knowledge is 'messy', it can be difficult and says there can be problems where the mentor is a highly linear person: "A good mentor should listen and know what can be achieved. They often have the same skills as a coach has," says McGurk. However, he points out, one of the mistakes organisations can make is in assuming that an experienced person is a natural mentor, which is not always the case.

Clutterbuck adds the ability to understand organisational politics and help the mentee think things through for themselves to McGurk's wish list of skills: "Effective mentors don't impel mentees towards goals, but allow goals to emerge over time from the learning conversation."

Photo of Professor John McGurk"The experienced person passes on their insight and is able to build self-esteem, whilst the mentee benefits from someone who has gone down the ski slopes themselves and can learn from their triumphs."

John McGurk, CIPD

And Gartside highlights commitment as a further required skill: "A willingness to invest time and energy in the development of another individual and to act as a sounding board for their development and career discussions."

A skill which requires the mentor to be approachable, engaged and able to draw on a wealth of relevant experience and a good understanding of the business and internal or external network. "There is an element of being able to show the way in a mentoring relationship, both in terms of perspective and also in terms of suggestions and opportunities," says Gartside.

What's HR & training's role?

Clutterbuck believes that HR plays a pivotal 'policing' role: "HR and training can start by ensuring the programme design is congruent with the International Standards for Mentoring Programmes in Employment (ISMPE). Appointing a dedicated programme coordinator is also important, with a clearly defined role."

He also recommends coordinators attend a specialist training programme based on the ISMPE: "It's also critical to avoid the sheep-dip approach. Both mentor and mentee need to be trained and then given periodic support in reviewing the relationship and acquiring relationship management skills appropriate to the phase of development, which the mentoring relationship has reached."

Britnor Guest agrees and says that HR & training is key in the mentoring programme design: "It's important not to strangle the programme with bureaucracy and paperwork but it is important to start off with some clear processes, guidelines and structures which will help the programme to be successful, not just at launch but through the life of the programme and other mentoring spin-offs."

Gartside says the role of HR and training departments: "Is primarily to explain the benefits of the mentoring relationship to both parties and create a culture in which mentoring is valued and individuals are encouraged to seek the input and advice of a mentor."

Mentoring is as old as time itself – famous mentoring relationships date back as far as Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander the Great – the list is endless.

Whilst the concept is ancient, the benefits are timeless and organisations as thoroughly modern as Ernst & Young are putting their own twists onto this age-old wisdom with their new 'reciprocal' mentoring, where junior staff can turn the tables on senior players, giving them a helping hand in the development of their management skills. Clearly mentoring is here to stay and those that embrace it benefit with improved retention and business continuity.


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