Mentor/mentee relationships benefit both parties. Mentees who are entrusted to a respected mentor not only reap the obvious benefits of the information the mentor provides them but also often feel more welcomed by the organization and personally shepherded through the “ins” and “outs” of organizational life.
Mentors benefit from the process by having a chance to organize the knowledge they have gained from experience and more firmly establish their expertise through the process of teaching and nurturing others.
Organizations benefit from developmental mentor relationships because these relationships accelerate the learning of talented individuals at the same time as helping to prevent those individuals from making unrecoverable missteps in the learning process.
Information and experience freely and generously shared in a mentor relationship helps to establish cultural norms around the importance of open knowledge transfer. These norms place a premium on the free flow of information as the lifeblood of organizational vitality while lifting the baseline of shared knowledge to higher and higher levels. Just a few strategically placed mentors can have an enormous impact on the free flow of information in an organization.
Good mentors can become a kind of ongoing irrigation system for an organization allowing information and knowledge to flow to where it is needed at a rate and in a manner that can be absorbed most usefully.
There are a number of criteria for establishing and maintaining an effective mentoring program. Of these, three particularly standout for me:
- Make mentoring a specific role with explicit accountabilities,
- Emphasize regular skillful feedback, and
- Nurture the virtue of humility in both mentor and mentee.
The mentoring role
Mentoring is a specific role not just something that more experienced individuals do informally between meetings or after work. Mentors should be selected from respected and experienced personnel who are willing to undertake the task and are provided with training in mentorship. Mentor relationships should be formal agreements between mentor and mentee with a clear written purpose and set of mutual accountabilities and metrics. The best mentor relationships are purposeful and goal directed—they have a Polaris or North Star which not only guides them but enables mentor and mentee to measure progress.
The role of feedback
Learning is simply the process of soliciting, receiving, and integrating feedback. If the mentee is to learn from the mentor and vice versa they must both be giving and receiving regular feedback. The giving and receiving of feedback focused on improvement and goal accomplishment is a skill. The greater the amount of accurate, skillfully delivered feedback in a mentor relationship the better the quality of that relationship and the learning derived. Both mentors and mentees need training in the giving and receiving of feedback. Giving and receiving feedback has to be one of the specific accountabilities of the entire relationship. Developing and honing those feedback skills need to remain “front and center” throughout the course of the mentor/mentee relationship.
Giving and receiving feedback is not just one of the key skills for learning from a mentor/mentee relationship it is one of the key leadership and management skills developed by the mentor/mentee relationship. Mentor/mentee partners grow in their ability to share feedback, information and knowledge. These are the exact abilities required for organizations to grow their capacity to learn, change and nimbly navigate an ever more complex world.
Intellectual humility is the virtue by which we remain open to learning from others and the changing world around us. Without this openness we remain closed both to new ideas and other people. We remain shut up within ourselves either alone or huddled together with others who like ourselves are certain. In order to grow and learn, we must perceive the need to grow and learn. Intellectual pride is the vice that shuts us off from novelty, creativity and locks us in the past.
Humility is an essential component of any good mentor/mentee relationship. Both parties must have the humility to learn from the other. Neither mentor or mentee can be closed off by intellectual pride if they are to be open to learning. Both parties must recognize their fallibility and the finite quality of all human knowledge.
Just like the agreement between mentor and mentee needs to have goals and subsequent metrics for its overall purpose, it should also include time to reflect on the parties’ openness to one another and learning new things. Such an agreement might include a metric like “the number of new things learned this month.”
Openness to the unknown should be celebrated and valued as well as contrasted with self-satisfied intellectual pride in the course of mentor/mentee discussions. This emphasis on humility should also serve as a cornerstone for company sponsored mentorship training programs.
Mentorship programs that focus on specific role accountabilities, the skillful giving and receiving of feedback and a robust spirit of intellectual humility are much more likely to become part of the warp and woof of the tapestry of an organization’s culture than programs which fail to emphasize even one of these essential success criteria.