What is Mentoring?

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.

mentoring chartDefinitions 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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4 Responses to What is Mentoring?

  1. David Basri says:

    I would argue that coaching and teaching are part of mentoring when there is a strategic goal of developing an employee. We have a small software company. Since not long after PEI was founded in 1996, we have had a Service Item set up in QuickBooks called “Mentoring”. It is used in many contexts.

    When an employee is assigned a project that requires new skills and I assist, my time is marked as Mentoring / Non-billable and their time is booked to the client project (billable or not). When I have to coach or teach a new skill that is booked to Mentoring. If I review internal work that an employee did (company website or whatever) and then discuss different techniques or strategy than they applied, that is Mentoring. However, the review process or asking them to fix something goes to Administration or Marketing or whatever normal business process is involved.

    It may be correct that if an employee is simply shown who to complete a specific task so that they can perform that duty, you might call that “merely” teaching. When efforts are part of a long-term strategic goal to develop an employee into something more than a cog in the machine, then the deliberate work to accomplish the goal is legitimately mentoring.

    David Basri
    Point Enterprises, Inc.
    http://www.pointent.com

    • Pam Ruster says:

      David, the idea to capture a mentoring role as a ‘job cost’ data point is an interesting one. We capture management consulting with our clients, which falls under mentoring with the teaching and coaching dynamic as discussed. With my own company staff I have not captured that in any way. Thanks for the eye opener!

  2. I have experienced all the three levels of “learning” with a person: I am mentored in a public speaking club. I have a direct and personal relationship with my mentor. She was my choice from the start. I felt that we clicked and I feel comfortable with her. She teaches me things in a focused and condensed way: all about public speaking and how to convey my message to an audience. My lessons are small assignments in the form of a speech formed in such a way for me to learn important elements of a successful speech but one at a time.

    However, I think a trainer is teaching you something much more specific rather than a mentor which connects elements from different lessons and goes a second level. The sessions can be more relaxed and a bit generalized though having one special assignment due to the varied topic of the speech and the many objectives that need to be met.

  3. Off-topic: I have just noticed the name of the blog is awake at two o’clock. It is 2.15 AM.

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