In a recent meeting of one of our groups in The Alternative Board®, the business owners discussed mentoring. One member, a partner in a large professional firm, has been tasked with mentoring a partner in training. He asked what the mentoring process should look like, and how it differed from merely sharing knowledge and experience.
Each member’s opening comment was identical. “I’ve never been formally mentored, but there was one person who taught me a lot.”
Is mentoring a special process, or is it merely a teaching role? Most of us teach our employees on an ongoing basis. On the most basic level, we want them to learn the processes and systems to do the work in our companies. We communicate our core values and visions for our businesses. We develop their skills in hopes that they can assume more responsibility.
Is that mentoring, or is it simply normal employee development? In larger organizations, mentors are assigned mentees who are expected to rise through the management ranks. Many public company CEOs credit a mentor who worked with them over a long period of time as their career progressed. The mentor helped direct their progress through positions and assignments intended to broaden both their knowledge and exposure in the organization.
Definitions of mentoring vary, but all of them describe a relationship where the mentor shares experience and skills, coupled with personal guidance and advice on applying those skills and challenging the mentee to stretch for new levels of accomplishment. Mentoring, therefore, couples the skills of teaching with those of coaching. The mentor not only imparts the knowledge, but also helps the mentee understand how and when to utilize that learning in practical application.
From the responses of the owners cited above, we all accept that teaching and coaching are normal parts of a business owner’s role. None of the participants, however, apparently considered that “real” mentoring. It seems we expect something more before we apply the mentoring label. What raises the bar to this level?
I believe mentoring requires a specific goal, which is agreed at the outset between the participants. It is coaching with a clear objective. It focuses not on ongoing improvement, but rather on a specific set of improvements to be accomplished in a certain time frame.
The professional whose assignment is mentoring a partner in training is an excellent example. She is expected by the firm to learn “partner level skills” before further promotion, and failing to do so in a specified time will damage her chance for advancement. Those skills aren’t technical, she can already do the work of a partner. They are instead the application of her technical abilities, communicating them to clients, and teaching them to subordinates. The goal is Specific (learn how to apply her skills beyond personal production), Measurable (new clients, successful subordinates), Achievable (she has already demonstrated her core abilities), Resourced (the mentorship assignment), and Time sensitive.
Raising normal employee development to the level of mentorship requires that both parties agree on a SMART goal. They formalize the objective, set aside time for regular communication and progress checks, and identify the steps needed to accomplish the desired outcome.
Most importantly, mentoring requires a special commitment by its participants. “Unofficial” mentoring is merely teaching, where the employee may or may not learn successfully. Mentoring includes a pledge by both parties to make the process successful.
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