Learning and development (L&D) has grown importance as a strategic asset, earning it a seat at the leadership table. A culmination of changes in the business environment has elevated L&D’s profile, including the digital transformation, new demands for hybrid and remote work models, economic challenges and the global skills gap.
Companies can no longer wait for L&D to fix problems after they occur. Instead, L&D must anticipate business trends and training needs and then upskill the organization to address these challenges proactively. And a mentorship program can be an agile learning strategy to continuously develop your workforce in the modern workplace.
Effective mentorship goes beyond reinforcing hard skills. Employees also need support with soft skills such as communication, collaboration and time management. In a dispersed work environment, employees also need to learn how to achieve work-life balance, master protocols and ensure their efforts are visible and deliver value.
A high-quality mentorship program can ensure that your organization builds and fosters professional relationships, even remotely. Mentorship can also improve diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace by empowering each employee to thrive and advance in their career.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some best practices to consider when designing a successful mentorship program in today’s business environment.
Mentorship Versus Coaching
To ensure your company leaders are embracing their role as a mentor effectively, it’s important to distinguish the difference between mentorship versus coaching. Mentoring and coaching can be synergistic but are two distinctive approaches to employee development.
A coach focuses on individual and/or team excellence by reinforcing professional goals, productivity and skills. As in sports, business coaches hold employees accountable for meeting targets, and look for weaknesses or skills deficiencies that can be improved via reskilling and upskilling.
Mentors play a different role than a coach. They are often mid-career or senior-level professionals who work with less experienced employees as a sounding board and source of advice. The advice offered by a mentor tends to be more open ended and informal, usually arising from wisdom that the mentor has earned during their career. For example, whereas a coach might help an employee set a specific, quantifiable target, a mentor would instead provide informal advice on how to navigate the organizational culture to achieve one’s goals.
As a side note: It’s also important to distinguish mentoring from therapy. A therapeutic relationship focuses on fostering healing. Mentors should not slip into the role of therapist or take sides in employee disputes, but instead keep the mentee focused on forward-looking problem-solving and share connections and career advice when appropriate. While the mentor/coach function often overlaps, the therapist function is distinct and should be left to licensed professionals.
Mentorship in a Dispersed Working Environment
Traditionally, the mentor/mentee relationship arises organically and takes place face-to-face. However in today’s workplace, virtual mentoring is on the rise and can be an effective alternative.
Dispersed work environments, while appealing to many employees for varied reasons, can also be isolating and stressful. Informal channels for communicating essential information are closed to remote employees, as is the ability to have a quick discussion in the hallway or breakroom.
Virtual mentoring can be a powerful way to ensure that all employees receive the benefits of advice and support from leaders. Best practice requires that these meetings be individualized, which can put more pressure on mentors. However, “Zoom fatigue” is real, and large virtual meetings are not an effective way to mentor. A short 10-minute virtual meeting with one mentee at a time is far preferable to an hour-long meeting in which some participants hide behind their screens or defer to more extroverted colleagues.
Building a Great Mentorship Program
L&D leaders must ensure that the mentorship program is flexible, transparent and measurable. And when there are too many rules, processes and metrics tied to a mentor-mentee relationship it can become just another box to tick, rather than a meaningful relationship for mutual growth.
However, with the right planning and tools, a good mentorship program can help all employees leverage the support needed to thrive in today’s workplace.
When establishing a successful mentorship program, turn to these six questions:
- What does the organization want to accomplish by institutionalizing a mentorship program?
- What is the mentoring process and how is it communicated to employees?
- Will participation in the program be voluntary or mandatory?
- How will mentors be matched to mentees? (And what happens if the match does not work well?)
- How can L&D leaders demonstrate the return on investment (ROI) to the C-suite?
- What tools and platforms will be used to enable and track mentorship in a dispersed workplace?
A successful mentorship program also needs good mentors. L&D leaders must ensure that leaders have access to mentorship training and ongoing support. Leadership already has significant responsibilities, so simply adding “mentorship” to this list is unlikely to produce good outcomes. Instead, they need opportunities to model best practice and discuss challenges that may arise.
The history of mentorship dates back to ancient Greece and refers to someone who provides guidance and insight. Harnessing the power of mentorship not only ensures that individual employees can thrive but also helps the organization navigate an increasingly complex business environment as well as meet demands for DEI initiatives with inclusive learning opportunities.
To maintain their seat at the table, L&D professionals must lead the way in institutionalizing the benefits of mentorship across the organization and career paths.