Do you remember what it was like to be the scrappy young upstart in your company? You were probably full of ideas and boundless energy — but you were most likely overwhelmed by all the things you didn’t even know you didn’t know: how to navigate office politics, how to snag that promotion, how to make that pivot into a different path within your company. That’s where your mentor came in. A leader within the company who knew the ropes helped you stay afloat — and eventually thrive — in your new office environment. If you’re indebted to a great mentor who helped you become the leader you are today, then there’s no better way to repay that debt than to become a great mentor yourself.
Being a good mentor, though, isn’t just an altruistic undertaking for business leaders; mentorship pays off for mentors as well as mentees. A study by the HR department of Sun Microsystems found that mentees who participated in a mentorship program were 25 percent more likely to get a raise — but participating mentors got an even bigger boost. Managers who participated as mentors were 28 times more likely to receive a raise than non-participating managers, and were six times more likely to receive a promotion[1. “Being a Mentor Could Boost Your Own Career,” http://archive.fortune.com/2007/03/12/news/economy/mentoring.fortune/index.htm]. Furthermore, playing mentor to promising young employees can be a big leg up as you continue to grow in your own career; as you advance in the company, it pays to have a field of fresh talent that you’re familiar with that you can promote alongside yourself. Mentorship programs benefit the company as a whole, too. As much as 80 percent of employee skills are learned informally,[2. “Where Did the 80% Come From?” http://www.informl.com/where-did-the-80-come-from/] and a mentor-mentee relationship is a great way to pass on essential knowledge in an informal manner.
Too often, business leaders think that meeting for lunch a few times a business quarter is all it takes to be a good mentor, but that’s not the case. Great mentorship requires more of a commitment. I recall a colleague of mine who had aspirations of being a great mentor; he took a younger employee under his wing as a mentee, but the mentorship soon fizzled out. Why? The mentor asked the mentee out for meals and coffee at sporadic times at the last minute — which meant the mentee didn’t have time to formulate meaningful questions or topics of discussion before he met with his mentor. They often ended up just shooting the breeze while dining out. It was the start of a great office friendship — but definitely not a mentorship.
To maximize the mentorship, you must set regular meetings with your mentee and stick to them. Try emailing your mentee ahead of time to see if there’s anything on his or her mind; that way your have time to reflect on the issues before your meeting as well. Otherwise, your mentorship meetings may devolve into what Inc Magazine calls “go-ahead-and-pick-my-brain” scenarios.[3. “How Playing the Long Game Made Elizabeth Holmes a Billionaire,” http://www.inc.com/magazine/201510/kimberly-weisul/the-longest-game.html] Presenting your mentorship as simply a Q&A session just won’t work because younger, newer employees may be too nervous or insecure to engage in a question free-for-all with their mentor. Your mentee probably already feels overwhelmed by the ins and outs of office politics and culture that he or she hasn’t grasped yet, so formalizing your mentorship meetings will grant your mentee some of the structure he or she craves.
It’s tempting to choose a mentor who reminds you of yourself when you were just starting out in your career, but often business leaders will inadvertently choose to mentor employees who only reflect similar outward characteristics, like gender and race. Leaders should resist the urge to mentor younger colleagues who share similar surface characteristics, since mentoring employees from a range of backgrounds gives business leaders a chance to foster a workplace environment that’s inclusive of diversity. As previously mentioned, studies have shown that mentorship gives mentees a leg up in the workforce, so if leaders are gravitating toward mentoring younger employees of only certain demographics, that’s putting other demographics (often those already underrepresented, like women and minorities) at a distinct disadvantage.
Leaders must also be cognizant of the quality of mentorship they’re providing to their mentees from diverse backgrounds. For example, a Harvard Business Review study found that men and women were being mentored at similar rates, but they were receiving different kinds of mentorship. For one, men were more likely to be mentored by senior management, while women were more likely to be paired up with junior-level management.
While both men and women received solid psychosocial mentorship (where they receive insightful feedback and advice from their mentor), men were much more likely to have mentors who would go to bat for them during promotions or big projects —this type of mentorship is called “sponsorship.”[4. “Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women,” https://hbr.org/2010/09/why-men-still-get-more-promotions-than-women] An example of sponsorship would be a mentor using his networking skills to hook up his mentee with a specific person in another department to facilitate a promotion on his mentee’s behalf. Psychosocial mentorship is incredibly valuable, but sponsorship helps move a mentee’s career forward in real, tangible ways.
To combat this mentorship imbalance, leaders should consider implementing formal mentorship programs to level the playing field when it comes to mentee access to senior leadership. Harvard Business Review found that women who were matched up with mentors through formal programs implemented by the company had received more promotions than women who had found mentors on their own (by a nearly three to two ratio). Implementing a formal mentorship program can also help your younger employees who are shyer and more introverted, since they may have trouble finding a good mentor on their own.
Being a great leader involves having the foresight to instill knowledge and skills into your promising, young workforce — and that’s why the best leaders are so often great mentors, too. To see how you can cultivate all the skills needed to be a successful, inspiring leader for your company, check out Applied Vision Works’ Leadership Development Program.