Company Culture

Altering Your Corporate DNA: Creating a Culture of Mentorship

By Sarah AlexanderFebruary 16, 2017

In today’s competitive market, retaining top talent is more important than ever. A large paycheck alone will not ensure your talent stays with you, given the fact that high-potential employees place tremendous value on having access to opportunities for development. Integrating mentoring into your organization’s culture is one way to provide opportunities for learning and development.

It is easy enough to set up lunches or “coffee chats” for your colleagues and simply hope that from there, the relationship will flourish and result in the senior “mentor” taking the eager novice under his/her wing. However, according to Maggie Fromm at International Leadership Association, companies that take this kind of approach “miss the mark when it comes to sustainability.”

For enterprises to reap ongoing benefits from mentorship, they must weave mentorship more broadly into the way its people work and interact on a daily basis. Companies like Microsoft and KPMG are catching on to this as they implement extensive mentorship programs that connect employees to peers in different divisions, providing exposure to fresh ideas and new ways of thinking. At these companies, mentorship is ingrained in the culture and has become a selling point for top recruits.

To develop a mentoring culture in your organization, it is critical to integrate both formal and informal opportunities for your employees to build relationships. These five steps will get you closer to coding mentorship into your company’s DNA:

Model the behavior you want to see

Leadership is indispensable to the success of any organizational change. The way the leadership team speaks, engages with other people and generally behaves can and will inform these actions by others. So to successfully kick off your mentoring movement, it is critical for executives to be visible in and supportive of the efforts. Leaders can contribute by talking explicitly about what this type of culture would look like and the value it can bring. For example, if you want people on your team to invest time in sharing skills with one another, provide examples of when that has paid off in your particular career or how you’ve seen it benefit a workplace more broadly.

In conjunction with leadership taking a prominent role, all other teams in your company will need to be brought into the fold when ingraining mentorship into the company’s culture. Each individual – whether in a management position or not – can strive for and practice mentoring excellence by seeking out mentors both in and out of the organization. They can also raise the bar for each of their peers by participating in multiple mentoring opportunities, either as mentor or mentee. The more you encourage this behavior, the better.

Empower others to act

Particularly at the outset of a cultural transition, people need a push to take action. One way to empower your people to embrace mentorship in their daily interactions is by seeking opportunities to connect and encourage people to share their knowledge. For instance, if you’d like an employee to get better at running meetings and you have another team member who is great at it, connect the two and ask your “subject matter expert” to coach the other. One caution in doing this: make sure you don’t create a dynamic where people feel that they are reporting to peers. Rather, emphasize that your team is a place where there is no shame in getting help from others. In a culture of mentorship, everyone should be giving and receiving help regularly. .

While this informal day-to-day empowerment can be extremely effective, it is often not enough to enact sweeping change across an organization. So parallel to these efforts, it is critical to put an infrastructure in place that will support multiple mentoring opportunities. This includes enacting formal mentoring and networking groups, establishing a one-on-one mentorship program, and creating a meaningful budget to support these efforts.

Know when to manage and when to coach

There’s a significant but often unacknowledged difference between managing- which focuses on direction, authority, immediate needs, and specific outcomes – and coaching, which involves more exploration, partnership, long-term improvement, and facilitating many possible outcomes.

Of course, sometimes we need management: navigating a crisis, getting a brand new employee up to speed, executing a quick-turnaround deliverable. And in a mentoring culture, it is important to have both, and therefore, understand when each is appropriate.

However, mentorship requires managers to put their coaching hats on more than they might be accustomed to. For example, providing context around big picture goals while giving junior team members the opportunity to put forth potential approaches, solutions, or recommendations to achieve them will invite opportunities for discourse and learning as opposed to simply informing them “these are the goals, and this is the path.”

Expect and embrace failure

One of the keys to successful mentorship is conveying a sense of belief in your team members by setting high expectations and then giving them the space to rise and meet them. In these scenarios, failure is bound to happen from time to time. But it’s important to remember that failure can be an incredible teacher.

As a leader, encourage your managers to accept failure. This can be a scary leap, but the best leaders push their people outside their comfort zones and are there to catch them when they fall. This kind of active learning is the essence of a mentoring culture. It will provide invaluable perspective and experience so your people are wiser, more agile, and better able to face challenges as they arise in the future.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

Author & Contributor

About the Author

Sarah is an elite triathlete and independent strategy consultant with an MBA from Chicago Booth. She is passionate about empowering others to achieve excellence.

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