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The Benefits of a Formal Mentoring Relationship
With Mother’s Day upon us, mentoring is a good theme for this month’s issue because the core ideas are similar: mothers and mentors ultimately have the same purpose which is to help someone who is less experienced develop and become the person they have the potential to be. Whatever the formality of the relationship, the roles are defined and structured around nurturing, teaching and learning, balancing and bending and believing in possibilities.
Whether parent-child, or mentor-protégé, the give and take in the relationship is dynamic and changing. As priorities shift so, too does what one of the pair focuses on. As in the parenting relationship, the mentoring relationship shifts with each success and set back, there are no right answers and often no clear course of action to follow – the best a parent can do, and the best a mentor can do, is to provide insight and demonstrate the tools to navigate in different situations; at the same time, it is the child and mentored who guides what’s needed at any given time and in what we learn from one another… taking time to reflect on that, it’s easier to recognize what each person offers the other and appreciate what that means to us.
The benefits of mentoring are almost immeasurable and it was difficult deciding how to focus this article… I have a LOT of thoughts on the topic because of the difference that mentors have made in both my professional and personal life. I’ve been lucky to work with really amazing individuals, several in formal mentoring programs and countless other people who took the role of mentor without ever using the label. My career is what it is because of the incredible mentors who shared what they know and encouraged me to grow. I am who I am because of my mentors. By numbers alone, informal mentoring relationships had perhaps the greatest influence on my development; however those instances of purposive pairing with mentors, definitely had more specific outcomes that I can point to as having had significant impact on my professional self.
Implementing a formal mentoring program is a great idea for any organization but how it’s done will / should vary according to business needs and goals. The “why” should decide what approach to take. The “why” determines who to include and what the pairings should look like. The “why” drives what training may be needed, and what support and follow up are required to ensure the participants get the most from it. Analysis of that “why” involves understanding the current state and what the future should look like (however simple or complex that vision might happen to be). Before jumping into a formal mentoring program, an organization is wise to clearly define expectations and then start with a project team including a small set of partner pairs so that there are controls in place to ensure the initiative will achieve the organizational goals. Knowing what the organization hopes will come from mentoring, mentoring partner pairs can be matched based on experience, expertise, specific skills, individual reasons and objectives for participating, and more personal characteristics that may be meaningful to the pairs or to the big picture.
Programs are more or less formal based on what structure the organization uses to define and frame the mentor-protégé relationships. When HR teams are developing a program, we’re more likely to be talking about formal initiatives that require greater planning and thought to ensure specific outcomes; depending on what the goals are, and likely longevity of the program (potential participants, potential interest, potential of finally exhausting the organization’s need and achieving the end-state goal). When managers implement a mentoring program, it is likely to entail less formal pairings that function as a buddy system that uses collaborative peer coaching – there is a specific end, but in this case the partner pairs are more likely to be determined by who has experience in a specific skill or which individual has detailed knowledge and information that another team member needs. The scale of formality shapes who sets what goals, how matches are made, and what additional supports or measures will ensure the program’s success.
Calling it “mentoring” or someone a “mentor” instills a certain formality, which is a big reason why informal mentors are very often realized after the fact. The proof is in the outcomes! In mentoring partners, and in the parent-child relationship, one person influences another in a way that shifts who they are, how they do things, maybe even why they do certain things in certain ways. Both relationships have amazing benefits to the participants; of course there are differences in the intensity of feeling and level of commitment, but for the best outcomes, each person will have given their best effort to the relationship and the evidence will be in their actions beyond that relationship. The outcomes, whether through a series of light-bulb and aha moments or a slow realization that things have shifted ever so subtly, are real. It’s only when we reflect that we realize that something is different about ourselves, that we see differently, that we’re more able, or able at least to know who to reach out to for guidance.
In all facets of our lives, there are always opportunities to mentor or be mentored, to share what we know and learn from others. By being open and willing to give our best to others generally, we will find relationships that take us further and allow us to discover our potential as both mentors and mentees. Chances are, you probably already have relationships like that, whether or not there is a formal program to participate in… Take the opportunity to formalize it, to recognize it and name it, in your organization or in your life more generally. A formal program lets HR implement mentoring in a way that is purposive and structured to achieve specific ends; Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day) formalize the role of parenting long enough to help us remember, recognize and appreciate just what that job entails.
Thank you to the mothers and the mentors.