Mentoring: Why this learning style matters and the top 3 traits for success
10 August 2023
No matter how many degrees, diplomas, or online courses an organisation enables its employees to access, there is little to compete with face-to-face mentorship and experience transfer as a pathway to acquire tacit knowledge, master skills and gain confidence.
Ask anyone who has been a learner and they’ll confirm that having their mentor show them how to execute a task was learning that stayed with them.
To note the real business value of mentorship, we need only look to Japan, which in 2022 ranked 13th in the 132 economies featured in the Global Innovation Index (GII) and is considered a global leader in robotics. This doesn’t just happen by employing bright young staffers – it is incorporated as a business imperative.
In many Japanese workplaces, new employees are paired with more skilled ones – their senpai – and are expected to work together with them, shadowing what they do. In Western workplaces, training is more likely to happen in a classroom-type seminar.
Interestingly, Japanese management emphasises the need for information to flow from the bottom of the company to the top, resulting in senior management having a largely supervisory rather than hands-on approach. This “reverse mentorship” is as important to leaders maintaining overall knowledge of their companies and the challenges and rewards it can expect.
Managing reverse mentorship
Michelle Moss, Director of Assessments, Signium Africa, notes that reverse mentorship has many benefits for the individuals involved and the organisation as a whole, and is not simply a way of trying to “teach old dogs new tricks”.
As the world of work becomes more digital, online and artificially intelligent, it is helpful for younger, more tech-savvy employees to teach and upskill older employees. Reverse mentoring is a practical way to achieve this.
However, the process goes far beyond age and technology – it can help promote an understanding of issues such as diversity, cultural relevance, generational gaps and customer reach. It can assist senior management to gather input from different perspectives and use those insights to inform and shape strategy. It therefore serves a purpose, meeting current as well as future organisational needs in a unique way.
As with any mentoring programme, reverse mentoring sessions should have a clear purpose and structure, as well as an agreed upon timeframe. Both parties should be willing to learn from each other.
For example, when implementing a reverse mentoring programme, a client of ours wanted to select a brilliant-minded junior staff member as a mentor but he was extremely shy, intimidated by those in authority, and uncomfortable in formal settings. The proposed mentee was a seasoned executive with prejudices about the younger generation being lazy and spoiled, with little of value to contribute.
The client’s intention was good but the programme would have failed due to preconceived ideas, personality type, and a poor match of mentor and mentee. Ultimately, the format of the reverse mentorship programme was altered and a small group approach was taken instead. Mentors and mentees were trained to give and to receive feedback, and learned how to be honest and sensitive, thereby contributing to the success and longevity of the initiative.
The role of mentorship in modern day businesses
The long-term benefit of mentoring lies in the shaping of both leaders and corporate culture. Guidance gleaned by on-the-job training from an experienced mentor encourages the development of understanding how a company works; leadership skills required to run all operations; the confidence to make decisions on the fly; and when a potential solution may require management or board approval.
A successful mentorship program contributes to ongoing company success by establishing a pipeline of capable leaders through knowledge development via fist-hand skills transfer, while creating an environment of robust, continuous learning.
By helping someone to accelerate their personal and professional growth, a mentor is an important cog in a machine that must be ready to meet any number of challenges and opportunities as they arise.
Top three traits of a good mentor
While the mentor – or master craftsman – should have varied skills within their specific business sector, they will most likely have the following three traits in order to be a truly effective teacher:
Communication: Whether verbal or written, a mentor must be able to impart feedback, ideas and guidance concisely. Being able to put themselves in the position of the person they are mentoring is both crucial and difficult, as going back to step one after years of performing these tasks easily requires special insight. A good mentor will explain from the mentee’s perspective.
Listening: While many people listen in order to respond, a quality mentor listens to determine what their mentee is saying. By listening to hear, the mentor will understand any concerns, show the learner how to deal with the issue, and ask them to repeat the learning – and understanding – of the mentor’s solution.
Patience: Guiding someone’s personal or professional growth requires time and patience, as well as support that engenders encouragement and motivation. A mentor should be empathetic, understanding and honest. Seeing things from a mentee’s perspective helps create a supportive and non-judgmental environment, enabling the mentee to feel comfortable sharing their challenges and seeking guidance. Honesty, however, is vital and the mentee should be able to accept constructive advice and ask questions.
A measure of success
The Japanese master can tell by the skills of his charge when the apprentice is ready to take on more tasks and perhaps take over from the master.
How do organisations measure the success of their mentorship programs? Essentially, evaluating both individual progress and overall business success can be determined by specific metrics each company can determine. These may include:
Measuring the retention rates of mentees compared to those without mentors to determine whether mentoring contributes to higher employee retention; and noting a program’s impact on job satisfaction and engagement.
Undertaking regular surveys to gauge mentees’ satisfaction levels compared to non-mentored employees. Greater job satisfaction, engagement and motivation will show whether mentoring or other skills programs are more effective.
Tracking the progression of mentees up the corporate ladder via increased responsibilities or promotions will show whether the mentees are advancing faster or more frequently than those without mentors.
A program – such as online questionnaires or testing – that can assess leadership skills by combining mentor and peer feedback; self-assessment; and behaviours around decision-making, communication, teamwork and problem-solving would be of great value for determining the impact of mentorship.
Collating feedback from both mentors and mentees regarding the quality of their relationships, the support received, and the perceived impact on their personal and professional development, will highlight the effectiveness of the mentoring process. This data can be compared with the experiences of employees who have not undergone mentoring.
On the business performance front, innovation, productivity and employee engagement can be assessed by reviewing where organizational success is seen – largely, where mentoring has contributed to a more capable and motivated workforce.
It’s important to remember that a good mentor can challenge individuals to grow by face-to-face training and the imparting of valuable knowledge and insights based on their own experiences. What they cannot do, however, is force learnings where they are not valued or wanted, and some people do indeed learn better via other methods.