Often faced with having to organise learning and development opportunities for the rest of the organisation, HR professionals tend to be the last on the list when it comes to creating worthwhile opportunities for themselves.
Many organisations now boast successful mentoring schemes, where staff looking for guidance can partner with a mentor to help steer them in the right direction. And, while HR professionals often have a hand in organising these schemes and ensuring they run efficiently, there is also scope to use mentoring to help manage their own careers.
According to the latest HR careers survey from XpertHR, when asked "how do you manage your ongoing career and knowledge development?", just 13.3% of respondents said that they had a mentoring relationship with someone inside the HR function, while a further 4.7% used mentors from outside HR to develop their careers.
Three key beneficiaries
How to get the best out of a mentoring relationship
- Define what you want to get out of it. Do you need career advice? Is it for an accreditation? Are you looking to make a change?
- Use the initial meeting to establish whether or not you will get on, and set down some ground rules.
- Set yourself a number of goals (three or four is adequate). Make sure these are realistic and discuss them with your mentor.
- Have an honest discussion about what happens if you don't have any chemistry with your mentor and want to end the partnership (on either side).
- Encourage your mentor to set you action points at the end of each meeting, so you have something to focus on for next time.
- Discuss a realistic time frame (six months, for example) and define an end point.
John Woodward-Roberts, a senior consultant at the leadership institute Roffey Park, believes that there are three key beneficiaries from a mentoring relationship, the first and most obvious being the person being mentored. "Being in the company of a role model, a wiser head who can guide you through a period of transition, can be very powerful," he explains. The other beneficiaries are the mentors themselves and the organisation, which will benefit from the improved performance and capability of the person being mentored.
Eighteen months ago, Gill Bell, HR director at Handle Recruitment, saw that HR professionals seemed to be undervaluing their own mentoring needs after she was approached by a client to find mentors for a couple of their staff. She came up with the idea that other clients could benefit from a "mentor matching" service and, last July, the company launched its first HR mentoring scheme. Interested parties nominate themselves and Handle finds appropriate mentors, depending on what the mentee wants to get out of the relationship. Some want to move from generalist HR into a specialism, others may be working in a stand-alone HR position in a company and be looking for some support, and others may simply need someone to help track their career path.
"We offer training to mentees on how to get the best out of the process and how to set goals for themselves," explains Bell. "They have to fill in an application form setting out their objectives and have an interview with someone at Handle so we can find the best match." Mentors also receive guidance and training on how to help their charges get the best out of the relationship, and Handle holds two or three mentoring events a year so that everyone can network.
Louisa Fryer, a learning and development partner at online retailer ASOS, found out about the scheme via a colleague. "I thought it was a great way of learning from an experienced and senior HR professional from outside my own company who would be able to share my own perspective," she says.
CIPD local mentoring programmes
Formal schemes such as this can provide a great template for a successful mentoring relationship. According to Eleanor Lloyd Jones, regional branch co-ordinator for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), setting out achievable goals and providing plenty of background on both mentor and mentee can help both to get something positive out of it. The CIPD currently offers local mentoring programmes at around a quarter of its branches, run on a voluntary basis, and hopes to increase this in the future. Lloyd Jones recently completed some research on the effectiveness of mentoring among members.
"Where mentoring relationships worked, there was clarity of objectives. It's important to know what the mentee wants and to agree this upfront; set boundaries and have a clear end point," she advises. "It's easy for you to meet up with someone you get along with, but if there is no clear focus the mentoring relationship will just drift." She recommends a defined period of six months, a reasonably short period that will give both parties the opportunity to focus.
The initial meeting is crucial: this is when you will set the agenda with your mentor and clarify the purpose of the relationship. It's important to have realistic expectations of what you might get out of the partnership, Bell adds: "We encourage mentees to have two or three clear goals and think about how they will be able to measure them so they can say 'I did it'. We also encourage mentors to list action points for each meeting - so there's something to deliver by next time."
A question of experience not age
There is an assumption that mentoring tends to benefit younger or more junior practitioners, but this is not strictly true, according to Woodward-Roberts. "It's not a question of age, but of experience. It's a matter of the journey the mentor has been on and the gravitas they can bring to their chosen subject," he says.
Getting to the top of your game needn't mean you no longer need the advice of a mentor, either. Ann Brown, UK HR director at IT services and consulting company Capgemini, has enjoyed a number of mentoring relationships, as well as being a mentor herself. One of her most influential current mentors is a financial director at Capgemini (in the company's French office, so not someone she works with closely), from whom she has been able to "get fresh thinking on situations and enjoy a chance to discuss business off the record". Brown adds: "I was moving into a global role and needed to build up relationships in order for me to be successful, so I looked to someone who was working in a global environment."
Positive impact on mentors
The positive impact that mentoring can have on the mentors themselves should not be underestimated. Lloyd Jones' research found that mentors were able to contribute to their own continuous professional development and extend their HR networks by giving up their time to help other HR professionals. "One branch mentor commented 'I feel the need to give something back by supporting a new generation of HR folk'," she says.
And, while the mentoring experience should be a positive one and both parties should share some chemistry, make sure it continues to challenge you. "A good mentoring relationship should have a beginning and an end," Brown concludes. "If you stay in it too long, it becomes a bit like a pair of comfy slippers. Once it slides into friendship it's no longer useful."
If you'd like to get involved with Handle's mentoring programme, either as a mentor or mentee, please email.