Does Mentoring Make Sense in Your Organization?

Today’s Workplace Realities Have Changed

The median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.2 years in January 2016, down from 4.6 years in January 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on September 22, 2016.

This being a median number, it doesn’t apply to every company or organization.  Your situation might be quite different.  This trend has implications for small and mid-sized enterprises.  While coaching may help people polish skills today, mentoring tends to be a longer-term staff investment.  Why sink money into employees who are going to leave in the next few years?  The short answer is that you shouldn’t.

What Are the Implications For You?

Strategic mentoring focuses on building the character, perspective, and the savvy contextual thinking of high potential people whom you expect to be a part of your efforts in the long run. An investment in these people can help to ensure that these women and men will stay with you longer than those who feel they are going nowhere in their jobs.

Strategically choosing to mentor an employee requires serious consideration on your part.  Whom do you choose?  When do you offer the guidance?  How do you see your business growing in the future?   Experience shows that many successful small and mid-sized businesses grow in size and complexity faster than the skills of their longer-term employees can accommodate.  Training people when there is no room for their future growth can actually hasten their desire to look elsewhere.  If your business isn’t growing, there generally aren’t the funds available to justify making such an investment.  Still, the future issues and complexity that you face means that you will be hindering your capabilities by not developing talented people.

When people leave, you lose their institutional knowledge, their customer or supplier connections, and their working relationships in the organization.  These things, in addition to their personal skills and knowledge will need to be developed anew in any new hire.  These intangibles require a good deal of time to replace.  There are also bound to be mistakes and frustrations as these new people “learn the ropes.”

Where Does Mentoring Make Sense?

While there are always exceptions due to individual realities, several business circumstances exist where mentoring creates a great ROI for both company and employees.  This discussion isn’t meant to be exhaustive.  It does lay out conditions which are ripe for employing strategic mentoring.

  • Growing business or practices: It can be difficult to take the time to train people when the work requirements are coming in hot and heavy.  This is especially true when teaching/learning is a time consuming side event.  Trusting an employee to just “get it” is a weak strategy.  Likewise, traditional shadowing, where the subordinate follows you around and watches what you do, never really allows strong contextual judgment to be developed. Using the daily work and responsibilities of your people as the practice field for developing new skills and savvy is a much more productive strategy.  Here, learning is an on-going dialogue rather than an event.  Shadowing is a nuanced, multi-phased activity which incorporates conversation, directed practice, and feedback that occurs close to the work to sharpen the skills of your developing talent.
  • Family businesses: These businesses tend to be quite difficult arenas in which new talent is allowed to grow.  Parents tend to remember who the younger generation has been rather than seeing who it has become.  Parents who have sunk their lives into the business, and who are depending on it to fund their lives after work is behind them, are often frightened to relinquish control to “the kids.”  It’s understandable, but not a good strategy.  Trust is only developed by giving opportunities and room to learn from mistakes.  If you want to exit the business someday, while keeping it in the family, a plan to develop competencies and benchmarks to verify good thinking are essential.  If you don’t have a development strategy already in place, problems quickly escalate when your sister Mary wants you to make her idiot child the VP of Marketing because he or she is smart and good with people.  Interfamily jealousy and competition become disruptive to business when there is no succession or developmental criteria in place.
  • Organizations facing stiff competition:  When you competition is breathing down your neck or pulling ahead, it’s time for a full court press.  You need everyone to be at their best, individually and as team members.  This isn’t the time to start developing talent.  Rather, leadership in an organization is about building the capability of the organization to continue to get better at delivering value and keeping ever more complex brand promises.  Using scenario planning, building collaborative thinking skills, and implementing rigorous accountability standards are essential for out-performing the competition.  It’s a much easier task if these expectations are already a part of your culture as opposed to your trying to start them on the fly.
  • Companies with one or more high potential employees: As a leader, it’s your responsibility get the greatest return possible on the talent you’re already paying for.  Every organization is comprised of some people who are growing into their roles, while others have reached their realistic ceilings.  There are usually others, however, who have the capability to do much more with some strategic mentoring or coaching.  Experience demonstrates that few organizations have a deliberate plan that’s being worked to nurture and harvest that potential.  Just as there are plans to upgrade facilities and equipment, working a deliberate plan to develop high potential people serves not only to bind them to the organization, but to grow the organization’s capacity to thrive in the future.
  • Companies or organizations where leadership is looking to retire or exit in the foreseeable future: If you want to exit the business someday, while keeping it in the family, a plan to develop competencies and benchmarks to verify good thinking are essential.  In other organizations, the challenge is to have an organization that can continue to be successful when the current leadership exits.  It’s a sad fact that too many small and medium-sized organizations find that the existing owners can’t sell the business because they are the key asset.  Other organizations falter when the boss, or the leadership team, have functioned for years as if they were the only thinkers in the business.  Developing the thinking skills of your organization as a whole is an essential element for any company’s long-term success.
  • Organizations where the leader or key management team members, while skilled in their particular roles are not particularly good teachers: Finally, many companies have leaders and managers who are good at their jobs.  Far fewer have people in those roles who are also good teachers.  Companies have people who tell others what to do. They have leaders who step in and solve problems when their people don’t, or can’t.  While this can be an efficient system in the moment, it does nothing to develop the capability of the team to become better problem solvers or decision makers.  Indeed, it stymies their interest it taking the risk of independent thinking.  Teaching and expecting your leadership team to teach their subordinates is a smart business strategy.