Mentoring programs can help develop leaders if organizations follow a few simple steps.
The philosophy behind mentoring programs is based on good intentions: Taking some of a company’s best potential and pairing them up with some of its best leaders to learn from their experience. But then reality sets in. Some inherent problems with mentoring programs include:
1. Prospective mentors are usually very good at what they do, but are very busy people. They are happy to take on new assignments, such as mentoring, but may find it difficult to maintain a consistent level of communication that is critical to skills improvement in the mentee.
2. Just because a mentor is good at what they do doesn’t mean that they can get someone else to also be good. Not all mentors are educators or developers of people.
3. Mentoring tends to be a seat-of-the-pants process. Great information that is shared during the process may be inconsistent and come without context. It also may not lead to a great leadership outcome.
So is mentoring a good way for organizations to develop leadership talent? Yes, if organizations make the process consistent, ease the burden on the mentors, and make the experience worthwhile for the mentees. The key ingredients are:
• an approved best practice for the mentor to use when guiding their mentee.
• a simple process for the mentor to follow to ensure the mentee can improve.
• an approach that requires very little time investment on the part of the mentor, but requires some rigor on the part of the mentee.
Establishing a Development Path
The building blocks of a development path should been drawn from the experience of the companies’ top leaders. The plan needs to be based on how executives think about the role of leadership and their values and the values of the company. This can be the basis of developing an organized plan for mentors to follow in order to grow skills and experience.
Another key part of developing a best practice in leadership is around passion and purpose. Great leaders have a passion for what they do, so this drive needs to be articulated in a way that others can inspire others. When organizations can get their workers to share in that passion, they will be much more willing to take the steps necessary to develop into a great leader.
There also needs to be an organized plan for developing those skills. It is not just developing individual competencies—it is also about how a variety of competencies work together to bring about a great leader.
Just like mentorship, it’s often best to learn how to do this by example. Here are a few organizations that were successful in communicating their best leadership practices.
• Faced with the need to quickly develop front-line leadership in a growing healthcare company, the leadership team brought together eight of their top front-line supervisors and three managers to create a best practice for leadership in their role. They were guided by a facilitator to articulate a purpose statement that described the passion they had for being a leader. They then outlined the steps necessary to achieve that purpose. From that, a set of learning activities that the mentees could use to develop the skills necessary to be great in their role was finalized. This roadmap became the basis for mentors to provide a consistent development program across the company.
• A U.S.-based construction contractor needed to upgrade the leadership skills of their field supervisors. Instead of gathering a group together for several days to create the plan, the organization selected three top supervisors and had them individually use a purpose, steps, definitions, and actions approach. The individual contributions were complied, and the best ideas were consolidated into an approved best practice.
The Mentoring Process
Mentors can be coached on how to use a roadmap of best practices to lead mentees to both get engaged and stay engaged in the development effort. What is required is that the mentor not provide their guidance about the program until after the mentee has had an opportunity to read, reflect on, write about, and share their ideas. What research has showed about the science of learning is that when people are forced to attend or take part in a training event, they will immediately put up resistance. It is based on the fight or flight reaction of triggering the limbic system. This is one of the reasons that traditional training programs can have a poor result.
Using the best practice roadmap, a mentor can take the burden of being the expert off of their shoulders and become a learning partner with the mentee. When the mentee has processed the best practice information sufficiently, only then should the mentor provide their own experiences. Each mentor goes through the same steps, making sure to cover all of the roadmap. These sessions can be as little as an hour per topic, but they should provide the focus and consistency necessary to keep the mentee on their purposeful mission. Mentors can even learn as much as the mentees in these discussions.
Because this approach provides a step-by-step methodology, the mentor doesn’t need to be trained as an educator or shaper of talent. The approach generates focused discussions that lead to learning.
Mentoring with this process ends the inconsistencies of unstructured mentoring programs. It guides the mentor into the topics important to the company and keeps the mentee focused on learning the things necessary to be great in their role. This process can be done in one-on-one engagements or can be done as group learning sessions. A repeatable and consistent approach will bring about great results.
Rick Grbavac is vice president of Cerebyte and the co-author of the award winning book The Star Factor.