Effective Mentoring in a small organisation

Businesses today are working ever harder to be competitive and attractive, to potential employees as well as customers. Great development opportunities” are often lauded in job adverts to set organisations apart.  Now with the use of Glassdoor and other social media sources, potential employees can check if these opportunities actually exist in reality, or are never mentioned again after the interview.

Companies of all sizes are putting semi-formal mentoring schemes in place as a step to building development into everyday work.  An employee’s manager will always have a pivotal role in their development.  The addition of a mentor (who doesn’t also have responsibility for directing their work and managing their performance) can add a freedom to development discussions and a more rounded approach to keep development in focus.

Mentorship is not a new idea. Traditionally a senior employee mentors a junior colleague to draw out career aspirations, offer guidance and connections, as well as the general wisdom of experience. In less hierarchical organisations this can happen at any level, particularly where there is a specific skill or experience in focus.  Some companies even call it ‘reverse mentoring’ where hierarchical barriers need to be broken down.  Regardless of the focus, there are 5 key elements to making mentoring successful:

1: Having the specific goal in mind.

Mentoring can achieve many things.  These include developing specific skills and capabilities, achieving a professional goal, someone to provide accountability for development plans or help refining career options.  It is however rare for mentoring to be able to achieve ALL of these things.  When an employee requests a mentor it is important to establish what they want to get out of the relationship.  This can ensure that they are realistic in what it can achieve (and that they know it’s not a personal career genie) and the right mentor can be selected accordingly.  This also ensures that the organisation can make an informed decision as to whether it is a good use of time for the mentor and mentee, and what the return on that investment is likely to be.

2: Agreeing the rules of engagement.

A simple agreement can help to set the parameters of mentoring, ensure that it is clear most of the responsibility sits with the mentee, and that time is used effectively.

3: Assigning mentors consciously.

This can be challenging in a small organisation without endless supply of perfect mentors.  Being specific about the goal can help to determine who would be most appropriate though, and can even mean that it is possible to look outside of the organisation and approach a wider network to find someone who can help with something specific. It is always worth remembering that the skills to be a good mentor can differ from the skills to be a good manager, if that widens the potential net.

4: Making it part of their role.

Whether someone is a mentor or mentee, it is important to remember that if they are to make it successful it needs both time and mental energy. Assuming that the organisation is clear on the goals of the mentoring relationship and time commitments (as per 1 and 2 above) then it should be possible to prioritise these activities along with other core elements of their role. If it is not then reconsider making the commitment in the first place.

5: Launching a new scheme.

I am always cautious of “launching” something like a mentoring scheme, even if you do have a large bank of potential mentors and mentees chomping at the bit. It can give the idea of fireworks that are going to fizzle out, or a one-time event. Instead it can be sensible to identify one or two individuals who would benefit from mentoring and set that up initially, reviewing for lessons learnt.  If it’s successful then more requests will inevitably come out of the woodwork or further potential partnerships can be identified.  This organic, or at least gradual growth, can help to truly embed mentoring as part of the organisation’s approach to development.  That in itself can be a real competitive advantage.