This post was written by Lauren Trees, a research program manager at member-based nonprofit APQC, the world’s foremost authority in benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management.
In an era of integrated e-learning suites and bite-sized videos, people may wonder whether an old-school training and development technique like mentoring still has a role to play. But despite the trend toward DIY and on-demand learning, the past few years have seen a resurgence of interest in workplace mentoring programs.
A recent survey shows that 89% of organizations use mentoring or apprenticeship to help scientific and technical employees develop their skills and competencies. Survey respondents also ranked mentoring as one of the best ways to build expertise within the workforce, with 59% of users rating it as effective or very effective.
But what, exactly, does mentoring mean in the modern workplace? How are organizations applying these techniques, and what kind of benefits are they seeing?
The answer is more complicated than it may appear. When APQC started researching mentoring programs in depth, we were amazed by the sheer variety of successful approaches we encountered. Firms were getting value from almost every possible mentoring format, including structured and organic programs, one-on-one and group structures, short- and long-term relationships, and face-to-face and virtual interactions. At first, it was hard to make sense of all this diversity. But what we ultimately realized was that the programs were different because they existed for different purposes.
Almost all mentoring initiatives start with a desire to develop and enrich employees, but the precise motivations that drive mentoring are as varied as the programs themselves. Based on the research, APQC identified four common reasons why organizations pursue workplace mentoring strategies, along with the specific business goals associated with each.
Reason No. 1: To transfer job-specific knowledge
The first application of mentoring is to transfer discipline- or job-specific knowledge and skills directly from one employee to another. In these programs, mentoring is a way to give less experienced employees the technical or hard skills they need to succeed in their current roles and prepare them to assume more advanced responsibilities over time. Organizations also use this type of mentoring to ensure that employees nearing retirement pass on the experience-based knowledge they have acquired over their careers to the midcareer professionals who ultimately will take over for them.
From a business perspective, the incentives to encourage knowledge-transfer mentoring are relatively straightforward. When mentoring targets new hires and others who are new to their roles, it can decrease time to competency while minimizing the need for costly classroom training. Mentorships that pair senior-level experts with midcareer professionals play an equally vital role by addressing expertise shortages, preserving critical knowledge, and strengthening succession management for key roles and departments.
Reason No. 2: To enable career pathing and counseling
The second reason to support mentoring is career pathing and counseling, which includes helping employees make decisions about their careers and development, and tackle conflicts and challenges that come up at work. Mentoring is a good fit for these objectives because most employees prefer to ask questions and seek career advice from an experienced peer who has been in their shoes at some point, rather than an HR representative or someone in their direct chain of command. In addition, a mentor may provide more candid, objective input than someone with more of a direct stake in the mentee’s choices and development.
The business motivations behind career-oriented mentoring are less obvious, but these pairings provide important benefits to the organizations that sponsor them. First, mentoring makes new hires feel connected and supported, which increases their job satisfaction and engagement. Mentors can also open mentees’ eyes to alternative career paths and help them find the right “home” within the organization, upping the chances that they will stay with their current employer.
Employee retention has always been a key measure, but with early-career millennials job-hopping twice as much as new graduates did 20 years ago, firm are even more focused on preserving their human capital investments. Mentoring is a relatively cost-effective tool to build meaningful connections with new hires, help them work through frustration and conflicts, and minimize attrition in the first few years of employment.
Reason No. 3: To develop business acumen and soft skills
The third reason to encourage mentoring is to help employees develop so-called “soft skills.” Instead of focusing on a particular field of expertise, this type of mentoring imparts wisdom and coping strategies that will benefit mentees in almost any role they might assume. Potential focus areas for soft-skills mentoring include leadership, strategic thinking, and communication skills as well as techniques to successfully navigate change and handle workplace relationships.
In many ways, the business objectives behind soft skills mentoring are similar to those for the transfer of job-specific knowledge. Employees who can lead, communicate, and interact effectively are more valuable contributors and better candidates for promotion, which improves overall workforce performance and bench strength. But investments in soft skills mentoring can also have a ripple effect, in that employees who are surrounded by supervisors and coworkers with strong people skills are more likely to be happy and stay over the long term. Bad managers are one of the top reasons why people leave their jobs, so a little extra attention to soft skills can go a long way toward improving employee retention rates.
Reasons No. 4: To disseminate “insider knowledge”
The final motive to support mentoring is the most nebulous, but nonetheless plays a critical role in employee development and engagement. When people start a new job, they might notice that their colleagues have certain “insider knowledge” that helps them in their roles. This knowledge can take many forms, from an understanding of the organizational hierarchy and the best “go-to” sources for information to the norms and expectations that guide employee behavior.
A key function of certain mentoring programs is to demystify this insider knowledge and teach employees the unwritten rules that don’t appear in the employee handbook. Mentors can offer insight into how the organization works, serve as role models for operating within the culture, and help mentees forge cross-functional and cross-generational networks that would otherwise take many years to develop.
This type of mentorship provides a range of business benefits, from protecting deeply embedded knowledge an organization’s values and processes to fostering the kind of workplace relationships that facilitate cross-boundary collaboration and innovation. In addition, insider knowledge mentoring can increase new-hire satisfaction and retention by making employees feel less alone and giving them practical tips to get things done.
Why it matters
There is significant overlap among the four reasons, but APQC finds the categories useful in helping people think through the role that mentorship should play in their organizations and the expectations associated with various classes of mentoring. In addition, it’s important to clarify the objectives for mentoring up front because they have serious implications for each program’s design and structure.
For example, mentorships that emphasize career pathing and counseling tend to be at least six months long so that pairs have time to build trust, whereas soft-skills mentoring is well-suited to short-term and group mentoring structures. Career counseling can be just as effective via video conferencing as it is in person, but it is usually better for mentors and mentees transferring job-specific knowledge to be in the same place so they can work side by side. And programs designed to disseminate insider knowledge often incorporate face-to-face networking events to help participants make connections and build relationships beyond their specific mentor pairings.
Understanding the specific reasons why an organization would sponsor and encourage mentoring, as well as how those reasons influence the activities and outcomes, is fundamental to designing a targeted mentoring strategy. However, it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to selecting, pairing, supporting, and monitoring mentors and mentees. Over the coming weeks, we’ll share more detailed research findings about what makes workplace mentoring programs tick along with examples from particularly successful programs.
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