Posted by: Bill von Achen | June 25, 2010

Making Mentoring Work

The word “mentor” reportedly originates in Greek mythology, when Odysseus entrusted the education of his son to his good friend Mentor, instructing him to “Tell him all you know.” Whether true or not, the story sets out a clear goal for mentoring relationships, and for mentors as well.

A recent informal survey of our Best Practices Boards group members suggests that only a handful of companies have formal mentoring programs in place. Nonetheless, most business leaders have vivid recollections of their own mentorship early in their careers, and would quickly acknowledge the importance and value of mentoring their own employees.

At its best, a good mentoring relationship can be beneficial for both parties. The protégé gets the benefit of objective advice from a more senior professional who has no other agenda than the success of the employee they’re mentoring. The mentor has the opportunity to share their accumulated experience and wisdom, and often gains meaningful insight into his/her own career through the process.

But mentoring relationships can also fail miserably. Sometimes, the failure is due to a simple personality disconnect between two otherwise well-meaning professionals, or to overwhelming professional or personal pressures that makes one party or the other unable to commit the full measure of energy required to make the relationship work.

In other instances, the problems can be more troublesome, such as when the mentor and the protégé see each other as competitors. In such circumstances, a potentially productive and supportive relationship can be undone by perceptions of deceit or manipulation, often with negative professional consequences for the protégé, the mentor, or both.

So how do you ensure that your mentoring efforts avoid these pitfalls? In their recent Wall Street Journal article “When Mentoring Goes Bad,” business educators Dawn Chandler and Lillian Eby offer the following suggestions on how to ensure that mentoring relationships stay on track:

Give it structure:  Make sure that your mentoring program is organized, and that it provides formal support for both mentors and protégés.

Have a backup:  Often, there’s value in assigning more than one mentor to a protégé, and vice-versa. That way, protégés have an alternative if a mentor doesn’t work out, or leaves the company.

Recruit carefully:  Work to match mentors and protégés based on shared interests. Such relationships are more likely to endure and succeed.

Train and orient both parties:  Communicate beforehand to both parties the essential principles of mentoring, and the expectations that each should bring to the relationship.

Commit or quit:  Be sure that at the outset both parties are committed to make the mentoring relationship work, or find other partners who can make that commitment.

Prepare for the end:  All mentoring relationships end at some point. Talking about the end in advance can help to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

You can find a link to the complete text of this article at www.bestpracticesforbusiness.com/resources under the heading “Mentoring.”

Do you have a formal mentoring program at your company? If so, what are the key ingredients that make it work? And what changes would you like to make to increase its effectiveness? Share your thoughts and ideas by commenting on this posting.


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