Can We Talk about Mentoring?

By: | January 22, 2018 • 4 min read
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He hosts "In the Workplace" on SiriusXM Channel 111 with Dan O'Meara. He can be emailed at [email protected]

Here are three tips for creating a viable mentoring program that will provide employees with the feedback they need without putting undue burdens on mentors.

Is there anything in the workplace that has more positive connotations than mentoring? Who doesn’t want to be “mentored,” and who doesn’t like the idea of being looked up to as a mentor?

A new study of the mentoring experience by Heidrick & Struggles offers evidence about how mentoring actually works and provides an opportunity to stop and think about what we actually want mentoring programs to do.

Sixty percent of the mentees in the survey said that their mentor was their supervisor, something I find very puzzling. What is the distinction between “supervising” and “mentoring”? Isn’t a supervisor supposed to be giving advice, talking about career opportunities, teaching and so forth? It seems to me that the whole basis of mentoring is that the relationship is not with the person who is in charge of your day-to-day performance, that the mentor has some distance from the day-to-day issues and some objectivity that the supervisor might not have. That makes me wonder if those who said their mentor was their supervisor were situations where the employee finally got a supervisor who was actually doing his or her job.

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Only 9 percent of the respondents said their mentorship came about from a formal program. That does not seem like a good thing to me because it means the relationships were informal, which also means unstructured, which makes it easy for it to run into problems.

Here’s one of the problems.

Many of us have probably been approached by someone more junior in their careers who asked if we would mentor them. Often—perhaps typically—these are people we don’t know who are working in a different organization. What they seem to want is sponsorship: Will you open doors for me? Will you help me find a better job and better opportunities? This is really an extension of networking, except it comes with an explicit “ask.”

The issue of mentoring as sponsorship implies obligations and creates reciprocity norms, a tricky issue when younger people are dealing with older, more powerful people at a time when concerns about what appropriate behavior means are heightened. Recent stories out of Silicon Valley where mentoring programs target younger women and have an explicit sponsorship element to them—the goal is to get more women into the senior ranks—make this concern very salient. Mentoring that has as its goal improving advancement opportunities for specific demographic groups, including younger employees, also raises legal concerns that many organizations don’t seem to have appreciated.

What may be most revealing from this survey is the No.1 benefit respondents said they got from their mentor: feedback on their own strengths. This is something that we should be getting from our supervisors. It’s hard to get that from someone who is not in a position to actually observe your work, which means you need someone in your organization. All the other benefits mentors said they received concerned advice of different kinds—how the company works, how to handle this management challenge or that problem and so forth. It seems to me that virtually all the categories of advice were topics that used to be addressed by career-development programs and management training. That makes me wonder how much the interest in mentoring is a actually substitute for training and career programs that no longer exist.

That takes me to the other side of the mentoring equation, and that is the demand on mentors. Those demands are considerable: You have direct reports to supervise, and if you are doing that right, it takes a lot of time. Then you also have someone—or more than one person—who is subordinate to you, but not a direct report who comes to you for the same kind of attention and help that direct reports want but who wants it in a different, informal relationship and will probably want some sponsorship help. Boy, is that tricky. I worry that we are burning out mentors and maybe using them to backstop the lack of training, career development and supervision.

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So here is what I would do as an employer: First, if I’m encouraging any kind of mentorship in the organization, I would create an official program to do it that lays out responsibilities and requirements. I would be explicit that these are not sponsorship arrangements, and I might even prohibit mentors from acting to advance the interests of their mentees.

Second, I would focus the relationship on the kind of information exchanges that mentees cannot get from their supervisors, or at a minimum, “second opinions” about the information they have received from their supervisors. The mentors shouldn’t be “shadow” supervisors potentially in conflict with supervisors.

Finally, I would assign mentors. I wouldn’t leave it to the mentees to find their mentors. What we know about that process is that mentees tend to find people like themselves: The Heidrick & Struggles survey finds, for example, that most women were mentored by women, even though the vast majority of the leaders in their organizations were men. One of the goals of mentoring should be to get different information than you would otherwise hear. We also don’t want the most important leaders to be overwhelmed with requests to be mentored.

If it is important enough to do mentoring, then it is important enough to do it right.