Mentoring in the workplace

In today’s business world, having a motivated workforce that can carry the business forward, while maintaining the integrity of the business, is vital. Yet organisations are facing the challenge of an aging workforce that leads to the question “How can we sustain a business and cultivate the next generation of CEO’s, HOD’s, line managers etc. that will lead the business successfully into the future?”

Ali Tambellini, Training Manager at Progression, unpacks the importance of mentorship in the workplace and why growing employees at a human level is good for business.

I recently attended a mentorship workshop that Progression offers to clients who are embarking on a Skills Development programme where learners are typically new to the workplace and have little or no work experience. We often come across scenarios in which the employer and learner are unable to establish that critical relationship that is so often the decider in the success of a programme, so I felt that it was important to highlight some of the critical elements involved in mentorship relationships and what we should be doing to develop them.

What is workplace mentorship?
To begin, we need to look at the definition of mentoring: the informal communication, usually face-to-face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the mentee).

In the workplace, the mentee (the student or the learner) gains knowledge from the mentor with the hope of developing skills and capabilities within the work environment. The mentor (the teacher) is someone whose expertise within the business environment places them in a position where they are able to impart the softer skills and guidance required for the job.

Thus, two roles within the mentorship relationship are clearly defined. For both parties, the mentor and mentee, understanding these roles is vital to ensuring a successful relationship and ultimately the successful transfer of knowledge. As with any relationship, the mentor and mentee are both responsible for their commitment, engagement and accountability to the learning taking place.

How mentor relationships are developed
Audrey J. Murrell, Associate Professor of Business Administration, Psychology, Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, highlights in her paper Five Key Steps for Mentoring Relationships what needs to be considered before embarking on a successful mentoring relationship. “Firstly both parties need to assess their needs of the relationship and establish goals or expectations of what they want the relationship to provide them.”

Cultivating the relationship is the next critical step. Murrell emphasises the importance of cultivating a mentoring relationship the same way you would approach any other relationship. In other words, it’s not simply a case of approaching a person and saying “Can you mentor me?” Instead look for common interests and activities that you may share, focus on the needs of the other person first and then go ahead and ask them for their help.

Once the relationship has been established, it is important to work towards continuous engagement. Murrell highlights this step simply: “Seek opportunities to maintain contact.” The mentee should always be mindful that although the mentor is the more experienced and knowledgeable party, the onus does not lie on the mentor to drive the relationship.

Murrell also suggests developing a mentoring network to ensure many diverse types of relationships that will provide the best resources for the mentee in his/her career development. Relationships should not only be formed with a manager or boss, but also with colleagues within various functional departments.

The benefits of workplace mentorship
The benefits of a strong mentorship culture within an organisation are numerous. The mentee gains a huge advantage by establishing and engaging in a career development relationship with a mentor, a benefit that extends to business as a whole; after all, within all businesses, the success of its employees ultimately determines the success of the organisation.

A deeper look shows that mentoring provides critical transfer of tacit knowledge within the business - the intangible capabilities that are an important component of an organisation’s competitive advantage and which cannot be copied or replicated by competitors. If knowledge transfer doesn’t take place within a business, the ‘how we do things’ of the business is at major risk of being lost. Mentoring can be an important means of managing this transfer of knowledge as it gives insight on the ‘unwritten’ rules of the business.

Mentoring is also an exceptional tool for integrating and developing a diverse workforce. Consider a workforce that is made up of a multitude of individuals of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. As we know, many of these differences come with their own stereotypes and prejudices which are often the cause of discrimination. Because mentorship encourages cultivating a relationship which focuses on common interests between two parties for the sake of learning, employees and employers develop relationships that focus on an individual rather than assumptions based on pre-existing stereotypes.

In conclusion
It is clear that mentorship within any organisation makes business sense. However, before an organisation embarks on some sort of advanced mentorship programme, it needs to be emphasised that the mentorship relationship, at its core, is the empowerment of an individual. As I was reminded in the workshop, this is something which needs to be top of mind at all times when mentoring first time entrants into the workplace, where ‘lack of exposure’ is often an inhibitor to the learning of that individual. The development of a strong mentorship relationship allows the mentor to not only share knowledge, but also provide emotional and social support, improving the self-esteem of the mentee so that they become confident and actively engaged within their role.

Through doing so, the mentee becomes a successful contributing member of the organisation and potentially one of the leaders of the future.

Ali and Ethel chat to us about their mentorship relationship and how they have managed it along the way, read the article here. To find out more about Progression’s mentorship programmes and support for employers email enquiries@progression.co.za

Ali Tambellini, Training Academy Manager, Click link to view her profile

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