Defining exactly what a mentor does is open to interpretation, but involved parties need to decide before they start.
The distinction between coaching and mentoring is often blurred and changing perceptions of what mentors do is adding to the confusion.
Pauline Willis, director of The Coaching and Mentoring Network, believes the traditional perception of mentors as senior people within an organisation who provide one-to-one guidance and support, particularly to newer recruits, has changed over the past 20 years.
“Today, mentoring is incredibly diverse and is done upwards, downwards and sideways. A mentor could be an external provider, colleague or superior,” she says.
Professor David Clutterbuck, an international expert on both mentoring and coaching, argues that mentoring is more holistic than coaching, which focuses on specific aspects of performance.
But he adds: “I think the key is not to get too hung up on terminology but to be very clear that the people in the relationship have the same perception of what that role is.”
For him, the key hallmarks of effective mentoring include training all participants beforehand, realistic expectations about what mentoring can achieve, and having someone co-ordinating the overall scheme.
He warns that without prior training, mentees will be unclear about what they need to do and mentors will concentrate too much on giving advice. “That will be much less effective than someone who asks the sort of questions that will make a person think. It’s about using your wisdom and experience to help structure the thinking of the other person.
“If you train nobody, you are lucky to get three out of 10 relationships delivering real value for either party. If you only train the mentors, you double that and, if you train the mentee and other stakeholders, you push that up to nine out of 10.”
Other stakeholders will include someone representing the organisation, as well as the mentee’s manager.
Clutterbuck says having a properly trained, highly networked co-ordinator is vital because they ensure the necessary training and reviews take place.
Carrying out these processes are core requirements of the newly created International Standards for Mentoring Programmes in Employment. These stipulate that measurements need to be based on the goals defined in the overall mentoring scheme as well as those agreed on between mentor and mentee.
Clutterbuck says a co-ordinator is also necessary to spot if things go wrong early on in a relationship as well as to encourage participants to use the skills and knowledge developed in training.
But he adds that the co-ordinator does not have to be from HR. At Nottinghamshire-based Seafield Logistics, for example, control of its mentoring scheme was handed over to the staff who volunteered to be mentors.
HR manager Rebekah Rayner explains: “We’re letting them drive it because it gives them ownership and they are the ones that have done the training so know more about mentoring than I do.”
Keeping the champions for the mentoring process continually informed is also important, according to Clutterbuck. “Being a mentor takes time, and if people feel it’s not supported by the organisation, there’s less incentive to do it.”
He says care needs to be taken with who receives mentoring because it will not work where there are problems such as burn out and excessive stress.
Clear goals need to be set for each mentoring relationship but Clutterbuck warns this can be counterproductive if done too early because it prevents the mentee from discovering what action is needed. “Really effective relationships will get into quite a lot of depth relating to a person’s motivation and ambitions and how to translate them into action and action plans.”
As with any learning and development programme, there are pitfalls to be avoided, but mentoring is likely to be undertaken with greater enthusiasm than many others.
Case study: Transport for London
Transport for London began promoting mentoring across its 21,000-strong workforce in 2006 and the initial results are described as very positive.
The most obvious indicator of success has been 90% of mentoring relationships lasting the full year of each programme, despite a huge diversity of participants.
Programme manager Clive Saunders says staff retention appears to have improved, adding: “Line managers said they’ve definitely seen people gain in confidence and assertiveness and even, in some instances, becoming more effective.”
But because the programme tends to attract people who are ambitious anyway, he is wary of attributing any career progression to the impact of mentoring. The programme is open to anyone to work either as a mentor or mentee but certain criteria have to be met before being accepted on to the initial day-long training programme.
“Everyone goes into the relationship properly prepared for what is needed to make it work,” says Saunders. “We also provide other resource materials to refer back to during the 12 months.”
He warns against expecting miracles. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about supporting people’s development and, in so doing, giving them the basis and framework to do what they want for themselves.”