Name one HR intervention that has a close to 100% failure rate. Is ‘Mentorship’ the first word that came to mind? Anyone who has told you otherwise has you fooled. Ever since organizations were built, whenever anyone in HR attempted to run a successful ‘mentorship program’, Mentor turned in his grave. Yes, Mentor is a character straight out of Greek Mythology and the man after who the modern day mentor is shaped.
As per Odyssey, Odysseus of Ithaca went to fight in the Trojan War and entrusted the care of his son, Telemachus to an older and wiser friend Mentor. As the story goes, Goddess Athena disguised herself as Mentor to provide counsel to Telemachus and developed a strong relationship built on the foundations of guidance and support. Over time, the word mentor has come to be associated with words like advisor, teacher, tutor, friend, coach, guide, sponsor and more.
As you can see, mentorship has a long tradition of success. Every successful person has had a great mentor who helped navigate the journey. There is absolutely no doubt that everyone should seek out a mentor or two to boost career success. However, it gets messy when HR gets into the picture and attempts to monitor the relationship. Good intentions don’t always lead to great results and structured mentorship interventions are a classic example.
Mentorship is a relationship best evolved organically. Over the course of this article, I will attempt to explain what HR can do to make this relationship a success, and areas where they should steer clear. Honestly, when you get down to it, it is as easy as 1, 2, 3:
1. Explain the model:
The biggest challenge that exists is that most people do not know what to do with a mentor. For the longest time, I fell into the same bucket. I would approach people I admired to be my mentor and eventually have no idea what to talk to them about other than the weather and the profession in general. Over time, I realized that there are a few basics that are essential to make the most of a mentor.
a. Zero in on Purpose: Draw a little Venn diagram. A mentor is one who helps answer questions that can’t be asked to or answered by a manager, peer or friend. Before you pick a mentor, circle in on the gap that you expect a mentor to fill. Be specific about the purpose and what you’d like to learn from them. Then search for a person who is best suitable to fill the gap. Don’t work backward by looking for a mentor first and then figuring what you can learn from them.
b. Invest: A mentor and mentee need to invest significant effort in getting to know each other as complete people. Mentorship needs a fair amount of familiarity, trust, and rapport. The best mentoring conversations sometimes take place after 6-8 months of conversations. It is best to find people you already know and respect.
I picked my ex-manager as a mentor (who else would know you better?) and a business leader I’d supported in the past. Both had hands-on experience in working with me, knew my pitfalls and working style better than anyone else did. It is likely you may not be as fortunate as I was, but do try to find people who know you or are willing to invest the effort to get there.
c. Figure what works best: It is important to respect time. Walk into each conversation knowing what you want out of it. Unstructured conversation doesn’t always work, especially during the initial contact and beginning stages. It may work at times but it is best not to rely on that 2% chance. It is not the mentors’ prerogative to drive the conversation; it is the mentees. It works similarly for determining the cadence. There is no guarantee that once every two weeks is the best frequency, find out how regularly you should connect. Remember that both of you are busy and time is precious. Don’t waste it.
As an HR professional, you should invest in helping both mentors and mentees understand the above.
2. Build a base:
Once you’ve covered step 1, you hopefully have an employee base clamoring to find mentors. Under ideal circumstances, mentees go out into the Wild West and find mentors for themselves but you will collide against a fair number who have no idea where to start looking. Even worse, there emerges a shortage of mentors.
It is a good idea to run a drive to onboard mentors and run them through the basics on how to be a strong mentor. I’ve come across many people who’d like to be a mentor but don’t know how to let the world know that they have the time and inclination. I’ve come across just as many who are overloaded and can’t do justice to a mentee. Find a way to build a base pool of suitable mentors.
Start by finding model employees that embody traits and skills you feel would be beneficial to other employees. You can slowly ease these top employees into mentorship roles by having them answer questions and train newer employees on certain tasks or projects. See how they handle simple mentoring tasks to narrow down whether or not they would be able to handle full mentorship with employees. ProSky Pathways is a great tool that can be used to identify mentor candidates who have the necessary skills to add to your mentor base.
3. Increase the chances of collision:
This is where the rubber hits the road. You’ve let mentees know what to look for, you've educated both sides on how to make most of the relationship, and you’ve built a strong mentor base. The last role the HR team should play is to increase chances of collision between a mentor and a mentee to enable each to find the best fit. I’ve come across two wonderful ways to do this.
The first is by building a tool much like a dating website that enables mentor and mentee registration and recommends a match based on what one is looking for. Remember much like dating profiles, the more specific you are about what you want, the more precise the match. The algorithm will only be as good as the inputs it receives.
The second collision forum that works wonders is organizing 1: 1-speed mentoring sessions. This works in four fantastic ways –
- (1) It provides visibility to the mentor pool.
- (2) It helps a mentee sample 2-3 mentors within the hour.
- (3) It helps quick answers to immediate questions that someone may have.
- (4) It can sometimes be the start of a meaningful relationship.
Have particpants prepare a few questions that they are currently facing to discuss in-depth with the mentors for a short period of time. When time is up, mentees will rotate to a new mentor and get different advice and multiple opinions on their subjects. Organizing these speed mentoring events can provide visibility into the potential mentors and increase chances of collision.
When HR should steer clear
Just as there are ways an HR professional can help, there are ways that they can disrupt the relationship and destroy belief in the system. One such way is by enforcing a mentoring relationship.
You can ensure 100% mentor-mentee assignment and push them to meet at a regular cadence, but unless the mentee considers it important or both parties put in the necessary investment, there is little an outsider can do. In addition, an enforced match isn’t always successful. If you are looking to track success metrics, I would include the number of mentors and mentee signups for events and on the portal and how many employees have active mentors. Outside of that, it is foolish to track metrics around the number of times they meet and how they leverage the relationship.
Let go of what you shouldn’t control. Over the years I've learned to accept the fact that mentorship works best when the employees are educated about the various aspects of mentorship, provided support mechanisms and then allowed to own the rest of the pieces. An HR professional can be responsible for only so much and if there is one space where they need to learn to throw control back to the employee base, this is it.
Ankita Poddar is an HR professional based out of India. Identified as one of the emerging young HR leaders in India in 2016, Ankita's experience as an HR Business Partner gives her the opportunity to work closely with business leaders, innovate and execute on the behalf of customers especially in areas of people analytics, employee engagement, rewards and recognition and performance management.