Mentors make their marks

A formal mentoring programme which is driven by the business is launched at Marks & Spencer this month.

Forget exotic coaching  programmes, high street retailer Marks & Spencer is putting its faith in old-fashioned mentoring. The firm has two new programmes that provide mentors at every level, for people on short-term work placements through to senior executives.

The retailer hopes to launch its first tranche of 50 executive mentoring partnerships this month. Mentors will initially be drawn from the ranks of executives who report to the board and they will act as mentors to the next layer of managers down.

“We’ve had mentoring in M&S before but, previously, partnerships have been informal and driven by individual career needs,” says Lesley Thomas, learning specialist for leadership and management at M&S. “This scheme is a formal programme that is being driven by the business. It’s about giving less experienced executives a view from the top.”

It’s definitely not coaching in another guise, she insists. “Coaching is about delivering a medium-term training need to enable someone to acquire a particular skill or develop certain behaviours,” she says. “Mentoring is about longer-term development through shared experiences.”


Senior managers who volunteer as mentors, attend a mentoring masterclass to introduce them to the scheme and then join a register of mentors. ‘Mentorees’ then select a mentor from this database. Partnerships will probably last between 12 and 18 months.

Thomas has great hopes for the scheme. Over the next couple of years she plans to expand it to encompass junior managers in the firm – encouraging people who have been mentored to mentor people further down the line. “But if it’s successful there is no reason why we can’t take it right to the front line,” she says.

It certainly wouldn’t be out of place on the shopfloor. Last year, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) team at M&S began piloting a series of work placements of two to four weeks for homeless people and people with disabilities. Each work experience candidate was offered a mentor – or buddy – for the duration of the placement. Buddies were ordinary colleagues – not managers.

It was extremely successful, says Ed Williams, head of CSR. “Having a buddy made all the difference to people completing the placement,” he says.

Now, M&S has extended the scheme and given it a name. Marks & Start will offer 10,000 work experience placements to homeless and disabled people, school kids, students and parents returning to work. As with the pilot schemes, each work experience colleague will be offered a buddy.

The role of the buddy is to welcome work placements on their first day and show them the basics, such as where the toilets are and how to get a cup of tea. They are also there to have lunch with and to talk through any problems that their work placement colleague might have. “The buddies are the human element in the equation that turn it from an ordinary experience into an aspirational one,” Williams says. “There is some structure to it, but it’s still a pretty informal relationship.”

Work experience

It’s not just the work experience placements who benefit, either. As many as three-in-four buddies say the experience has helped their own development. Managers approve of it too and more and more are recommending the scheme as a development tool to their staff. As a result, there are now 1,000 M&S employees across the company acting as buddies.

“The most important qualities buddies need are enthusiasm and the ability to empathise. We encourage buddies to put themselves into the participants’ shoes,” Williams says. However, they are not thrown into it cold. All buddies attend a half- to

one-day training module, which introduces them to the basics of mentoring, how it works and how to be a successful buddy. In addition they receive a personal briefing on the colleague they will be buddying, their background and any particular needs they might have.

Being a buddy develops people’s skills in a variety of ways, Williams says. “It forces them to improve their planning and organisational skills. For two to four weeks they will have another priority to deal with in addition to their everyday job.”

It also builds up people’s communications and learning skills as well as increasing their understanding of diversity and difference. Many of them will never have met a homeless person before or worked closely with someone with disabilities

It sounds trite, but it is this element of buddying that is perhaps most valuable to Marks & Spencer. It makes it a fantastic motivator for staff, says Williams. “Employees are happy that they are making a contribution,

and they feel amazingly proud to be working for company that sponsors such a programme.”

Community programme manager Emily-Jane Walker acted as a buddy to a homeless refugee from Sierra Leone who took part in a work placement scheme at M&S last year.

“We spent the first morning drinking coffee and discussing what he wanted from the placement and the work we wanted him to do. He was clearly excited about it.

“I stuck pretty close to him for the first week, but overall I spent between a quarter and half of my time with him.

“I wasn’t his line manager. As a manager I expect my team to deliver things. As a buddy, I knew that my colleague needed more support.

“The experience had a knock-on effect with the rest of my team, who have started to buddy each other informally.’

As for Walker, she is now looking for her own buddy, or mentor, through the M&S executive programme.

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