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Why corporate mentoring often doesn’t work

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The traditions of mentoring in organisations may be worthwhile but, warns Judith Germain, may doing more harm than good.

There are a number of research projects that show that the more engaged employees are the bigger the productivity increase. Research also shows that there is around 20% of the workforce out performing their peers. So it can seem to be good economic sense to have the 20% as engaged as possible. Often this is the focus of succession plans and internal mentoring schemes. Many readers will have heard of the need to concentrate on ‘high potentials’ or ‘key talent’.

Whilst the intent is laudable often the implementation is not, with only a few exceptionable companies getting the results that they expected or receiving a good return on their investment. The consequence of getting this wrong is not just financial; it can also result in a lack of trust towards the company and the departure of the very people that the company wants to keep.

What is mentoring and does it differ from coaching?


Coaching begins with the premise that the answers are within the person being coached. The coach's role is to help the individual understand that and via the use of encouraging and questioning techniques, helps elicit the solution. A coach is generally non directional and does not provide advice. Good companies with a strong empowerment culture tend to encourage its managers to have a coaching style and may even employ executive coaches for its top performers. Aspiring companies prefer to have internal coaches to improve the performance of its employees.

By contrast a mentor is an expert who provides guidance and advice within a more developmental relationship. Mentoring requires flexibility of the mentor and their ability to use a wide range of techniques to guide the mentee. Good mentors will apply coaching techniques where applicable and will be unafraid to provide detailed advice on what the mentees next steps are. Mentoring works best for senior executives and directors – for these individuals coaching is less relevant and useful. This is especially true where it is specific ‘how to’ knowledge that is required rather than a reflective sounding board.
A lot of internal mentoring schemes subscribe to the myth that mentoring needs to be provided by an older more senior employee. This is no longer a truism, mentoring should be provided by a person that is able to provide knowledge and direction in an area that they are experts in. (Not withstanding having the right knowledge, skills, character and behavioural traits).
Often the mentor is a senior manager chosen not because of his skills or the fact that he is a role model but because he is in a senior position. This is problematic for a number of reasons:
  • The senior manager does not wish to be a mentor
  • The senior manager is very busy and cannot see the value of being a part of the Internal Mentoring Scheme
  • The senior manager is a poor role mode
  • The senior manager is not credible

Getting mentoring wrong

Having the wrong mentor for the scheme can have a very adverse effect on the entire mentoring programme. Setting up an internal mentoring scheme without clearly defining and communicating the purpose can also be problematic. I was hired to run a workshop for a group of employees around how they felt they were treated and perceived by their managers and a discussion around why they felt they were being held back in their career. Most of the group felt that they needed an external mentor to help them learn the behaviours and skills that they needed to progress in their careers. I understood that there was an internal mentoring scheme so I queried why they were not using it. The message that came out loud and clear was that they did not trust the scheme. The perception was that it was being used to discover information to be used against them. Many employees quoted examples that they believed reinforced this idea.
The perception that internal mentoring schemes are set up for ill is more common for schemes that are devolved to all employees rather than schemes that are more ‘traditional’. This perception is however one of the reasons that corporate internal mentoring schemes or programmes does not work. There is a lack of trust in the system, especially when the organisational culture does not support the level of openness that a mentoring scheme needs to encourage.
Ill equipped mentors who have not been trained properly and who are unable to deal with the conflicts that will ensue from their role as a mentor, has the capacity not just to destroy the scheme but to irrevocably impact the trust in the organisation. It is important that mentors of internal schemes have an external supervising mentor who can provide guidance as and when appropriate.
Sometimes organisations send out mix messages about their mentoring scheme. For example not allowing the mentor and mentee sufficient time to meet to discuss issues, or by having appraisal systems that actually discourage the use of a mentor. Peer pressure can also discourage their usage as other employees see time spent with the mentor as ‘time off’ and dissuade their colleague for utilising the scheme.
Mentoring schemes are often appropriate ways to develop talented employees who need to understand the key activities that they require to achieve to complete a task, change behaviour or enhance their career. Companies need to understand the environment in which the schemes operate and ensure that there is sufficient trust engendered.

Judith Germain is founder and principal mentor of Dynamic Transitions a company which enables organisations to significantly improve the leadership performance of the key brands or influencers in the organisation. Judith provides strategic business and executive mentoring, and leadership training and consultancy. For more information visit www.developing-leadership.com or email jude@dynamic-transitions.co.uk.

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