Even in organizations with exemplary training programs, at some point it occurs to the senior members that those not so senior in the organization could use some mentoring. For over twenty years various individuals have called on me to help start a mentoring program. Being that the most recent call came from the Navy while I was vacationing, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to write down my thoughts on the subject and make it available on my website. So, here goes…
I formally apologize to those who are fond of formal mentoring programs. By and large, in my experience, they fail to be worth the effort. There are reasons for this. Firstly, not every senior member of an organization is capable of being a good mentor. Secondly, mentors only get the title when someone who looks up to them and learns from them decides they mentored them. Contrast this to schoolteachers, who get and retain their title regardless of whether the students learn. Thirdly, while one can teach what they know even if they don’t embody that knowledge in their daily behaviors, effective mentors consistently display what they want others to learn through their own behavior, and beyond that, take the time to explain why they have found it wise to think and behave the way they do.
Mentors are role models first, teachers second. Mentors don’t have to be role models for everything in life, just certain things—perhaps even just one thing. They aren’t subject matter experts as much as they are wise. I use the term wise in the context of Plotinus who said, “Wisdom is knowledge put to work.” To be chosen as a mentor, one must first obviously and consistently display behavior that demonstrates wise choices and behavioral discipline.
This is why I say not all senior people in an organization are suited for mentoring. Please note that I am not implying that only senior members of an organization can mentor their junior cohorts. It’s just that in over twenty years, not one organization has called me to tell me they are putting in place a mentoring program where the juniors can mentor the seniors. (I’m just sayin’…)
Here are the four most critical and essential elements for any informal mentoring program if it is to bear the fruit of its intentions.
Four Critical Elements to Mentoring
1) Identify leaders who are capable of being good mentors, and identify their most admirable traits as well. This step of formal recognition of admirable behavior will edify the organization.
Ask these leaders to share what drives them to behave and think the way they do in regard to those traits. Examples of these traits could include:
- how to get the whole story before jumping to a conclusion
- how to reprimand someone in a manner that gains respect and improves performance
- how to ask for help in an effective manner
- how to delegate effectively
2) For those leaders who have trouble communicating why they think and behave the way they do, and perhaps simply attribute it to who they are or how they were raised, consider coaching them through a process that reveals to them how they think. If this is successful they can then become part of the mentoring program. If not, they can simply continue to be good behavioral examples and perhaps still influence those who notice, admire and want to emulate them. This is a more passive form of mentoring, but still effective for those who choose to emulate them.
3) Identify the junior members who need mentoring and specifically match their needs with the mentor who has those strengths. The junior member has to believe that the senior member is strong in that particular area and that they can learn from them, or no mentoring is possible. Remember mentoring only takes place when the student decides it has.
4) Determine the Measure of Effectiveness, or how it will be decided that mentoring is actually and effectively taking place. In an informal program, this improvement doesn’t need to be monitored or measured in any formal way. It does need to be acknowledged when displayed by the student. (I call this catching people doing something right. This acknowledgment goes a long way in positively reinforcing the behavior and edifying the mentoring process for the organization.)
While there can be more elements and complexities added to an informal mentoring program, I have found that these four elements are critical and essential. If this sounds a bit too simple, consider this: mentoring is a natural process that takes place among human beings because they are social creatures in a social organization. Keeping the process as simple as possible keeps it natural and avoids having processes get in the way of results.
That being said, a formal kick-off explaining the process to all involved (and even those who won’t be involved) is usually a good idea. I didn’t include it in the four steps because it isn’t always necessary. However my experience shows that a formal kick-off goes a long way in helping create successful results.
If you’d like to learn more about how mentoring programs work, or how you can create a successful informal mentoring program in your organization, let us know, we’d be glad to help.
Mentoring vs. Teaching
Good luck and happy mentoring.