Mentoring 101

In ancient Greece, Mentor was an elderly friend of Odysseus, who, you will recall, was an extensive business traveler. Odysseus charged Mentor to advise and assist his son Telemachus while he was away on an extended M&A transaction. Mentor advised Telemachus, interceded on his behalf with town elders and even got him a ship so that he could look for news of his missing father.

Like Mentor the man, your internal executives have relationships both inside your company and with vendors, associations, regulators and the wider community. They also understand the company’s history and culture. Given that by definition potential mentors already work in (or have held) key positions in your organization, a mentoring program as part of leadership development is a very attractive option.

One of the biggest advantages of a mentoring program is that it allows a company to take full advantage of the collective wisdom held by longtime executives. It provides a useful role for “tribal elders” who are nearing retirement and fosters the leadership development of both mentor and mentee. One organization I know of has a mentor-at-large. Recently retired from a senior line position, this organizational elder is a resource and ombudsman for younger executives, whether the need is an idea, an introduction, a stern bit of counsel or a pat on the back.

However, there are challenges to a mentoring program that left unattended will turn it into one more program that is at best ineffectual and at worst a subject of derision and even organizational suffering. Successful mentoring programs possess three fundamental characteristics.

  • Formal and informal mentoring relationships. Many mentoring programs go astray when the assignment of mentor/mentee relationships is too rigid and restrictive. Informal mentoring relationships will emerge and trying to manage or eliminate them is unrealistic and a waste of time. Other programs lack impact because the relationships are all informal or based only on personal or reporting relationships. The most successful programs use both. Putting some formality into a mentoring relationship gives it both power and boundaries.
  • Clear boundaries. There are many things a mentor can do that an outside coach cannot: open doors, make introductions, share resources and advocate on the mentee’s behalf for plum assignments. However, taken to the extreme, the mentor relationship can become a platform for favoritism or indentured servitude. Consider the remarks of one mentee who was initially thrilled to be mentored by the COO of a mid-sized company. “At first it was great. I met people I otherwise would not have met and got to see how things are done two levels up. But it was soon like having two bosses – or two fathers. My mentor spent more time telling me what to do and using me like extra head count than anything else.”
  • Coach training for mentors. Coaching skills are a terrific asset for mentors. By learning the basics of coaching, a mentor can quicken a mentee’s growth, allowing him or her to learn more and avoid the trap of becoming that overly directive second boss/parent. A mentor’s job is not to make a task easy for the mentee or to do it for him. It is to illuminate a way forward, allowing the mentee to learn lessons from the experience and expand his capacity.

Remember also that not everyone who is a mentor needs to be at the top of the organization. When I came to work for Alltel Information Services, one of my direct reports was a man who had been there so long his employee number was 9. While he had not risen to the executive suite, he was invaluable in helping me figure out how things worked at the company, keeping me out of trouble and introducing me to people I did not even know I needed to meet.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, April 21, 2008.