Meaningful Mentorship

Attract top talent, develop the team, grow the business.  Every business owner knows this is the key to success.  But why do we struggle so hard to retain talent?  Why is team cohesion such an elusive creature?  If we’re paying people well, why don’t they stay?  What in the world are they seeking?!

The answer may lie in mentorship.  According to a study by Harvard Business Review, younger employees value mentoring and coaching — so much so that they frequently leave their current jobs in search of another position that provides greater mentorship opportunity. It’s such a problem that even big companies like Microsoft and KPMG have responded by developing programs that place co-workers in different divisions together to mentor each other.  Both sides are provided fresh ideas about career paths, developing new skills, and staying engaged with their colleagues and the company in general.  It’s a new way of thinking that’s producing big results.

Mentorship is not a new idea, of course.  Many companies have tried to foster mentorship within their organizations, but usually end up with mixed results. You know the drill: Business owners and/or HR departments eagerly set up colleagues for lunches or other work “dates”, and cross their fingers that a relationship will spark. It’s like a blind date for professionals.  The hope is that the more seasoned pro will take an eager novice under his or her wing and, fingers crossed, the company’s next generation of great leaders will be born. Except, usually, everyone winds up disappointed.

As your company’s leader, you need to find a way to build your mentorship program on more solid ground.  In other words, you need to weave the mentality of mentorship — where more seasoned team members are actively and continually passing on skills and knowledge while modeling teaching behavior — into the way your team works, on a daily basis, so that mentorship becomes part of the company culture and not a one-time “date” that relies solely on luck.  This is what I like to call “mentoring outside the lines”.

Here are three suggestions to get you started.

1. Be a mentor yourself.

Effective leaders model the behaviors they want to see because they understand that those working under them are sensitive to their actions and energies.  The way you behave, speak, and engage with other people is constantly being watched by your employees.  Thus, you must take on the role of mentor yourself.  Demonstrate positive, respectful, and solution-oriented approaches in everything you do.  Take the time to explain your reasoning when appropriate, and walk your team through the process.  

You’ll still be a manager sometimes.  That’s okay.  There are clear times — navigating a crisis or executing a quick-turn deliverable, for example — when you’ll need to take the reins and get things done in a more managerial way.  But, in general, you need wear your coaching hat more.  Facilitate trial and exploration. Provide context around the bigger picture and larger goals, and give junior team members the opportunity to think through and pitch their potential approaches and solutions.  In short, create good teachers by being a good one yourself.

2.  Get used to falling on your face.

Remember when your child first learned to walk?  She had been cruising the couch for weeks and was ready to let go.  You both embraced the task at hand and you gave her the time and space needed to meet it.  With excitement she stepped out, took two steps on her own, and promptly fell.  Did you scold her?  No, you picked her up, helped her regain her balance, and encouraged her to try again.  One day she got it.  And then she just took off.

One of the keys to successful mentorship is conveying a sense of belief in your team members and what they are capable of accomplishing. Setting high goals and expectations while giving people the space to rise and meet those expectations is the mark of a good leader — just as it is a good parent.  If you want your employees to “take off”, you have to let them stumble at first.

Failure is a great teacher, and a leader who embraces that mentality will see greater success.  A culture that rewards creativity and trying new things–without punishing the misses–produces a team of savvy problem-solvers that can think on its feet and is energized (not paralyzed) by new challenges.  When the going gets tough, that’s exactly the kind of team you’ll want in your corner.

3. Coach the whole person.

No one comes to work in a bubble.  Every one of your employees is under pressure at home that impacts his or her work life.  No one can “leave it all at the door”.  When you understand this, you can coach more effectively.

Is one of your employees struggling with exhaustion because of a new baby at home?  Be supportive of his efforts to juggle it all by putting him in touch with another colleague who has had a similar experience.  Does someone else seem particularly passionate about something outside of her existing role? Identify ways to help her hone her interest and skills in that area.  Make having insight into your employees lives a critical component of your job.

Remember that the goal of mentorship isn’t just to train up the next generation of business leaders.  The goal is to create a culture of teaching so that your current junior staff will rise up, when the time comes, and naturally pay it forward to the next set of new recruits.  It’s a time-intensive process, but it’s so worth it.  

About Rachel Coughtry

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