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What are workplace mentorships and how do they help build great companies?

Updated 6th March 2022

Starting an entirely new job usually requires you to learn from more experienced co-workers. That's true, even if you've had training beforehand. There's often a world of difference between preparing theoretically, and actually performing your job in practice. 

Take recently qualified doctors and lawyers, for example. They're generally expected to keep learning through the early stages of their career. New employees in fast-paced or competitive industries can seriously benefit from having a mentorship at work.

While on the job training and "shadowing" are typical approaches here, the role of mentorship is slightly different. Mentors are there to guide, not solely from a practical viewpoint but a theoretical/emotional one too. 

Mentors and mentorship programmes should help mentees with a more holistic approach to their career. That way, mentors can focus on ways in which to grow self-motivation, learning and development within their protégé.

Mentorship at work can help employees to find their feet, engage in their roles and advance their careers. 

In this article, we'll be looking at what why mentorships are an important tool for employee development. But we'll also be breaking down precisely what makes a good workplace mentorship.

Why workplace mentorships matter

Mentorship can give employees an accessible roadmap for their careers. It can help take some of the guess-work out of deciding their futures. It's a bit like swapping from one of those old A-Z maps to the latest iteration of Google Maps. 

Mentorships give you the benefits of your mentor's wisdom. It's not just the things they did right that got them where they are today. They can give you the benefit of knowing what they wish they had done differently. Workplace mentorship can be a valuable source of feedback, as well as support for an employee's wellbeing.

A case study at Sun Microsystems covered by Forbes found that mentees were five times more likely to be promoted or to advance in pay-grade than those not in a mentorship programme. Mentors themselves were even more likely to get a raise or a promotion. This shows that workplace mentorships can be beneficial for all participants.

Mentorships play a key role in building diversity

"Creating a culture of Mentorship" was a study of over 1,000 US employees. 27% of respondents said their organisations ran mentorship programs. Nearly three-quarters of those who were minority respondents reported participating. Women and BAME participants were also more likely to report that mentoring was extremely important to their careers.

A good mentor should be someone who understands the experiences their mentee will face. That's just one reason it's important to make sure members of marginalised groups can access these mentorships. But even more essentially, to ensure that these people can go on become mentors themselves.

Mentorship at work can come from anyone, not just someone older or more senior.

How to be a great workplace mentor

Mentorship at work requires great communication skills and a good deal of patience. So, in case you're preparing to take on a workplace mentorship role for the first time, below are summaries of the different kinds of mentors. There are also a few tips that are worth bearing in mind.

Different types of mentorship include:

Peer mentorship

Peer mentorships are often used in early career stages, during the onboarding process. If you're a peer mentor, you'll be guiding someone more-or-less on your level. You'll be showing them the ropes and helping them get acclimated to the workplace.

Career mentorship

This is perhaps the most quintessential form of mentorship. In this role, you'll help your mentee to understand how their role fits into the goals of the organisation. But you'll also offer career advice. If all goes well, you'll also advocate for them if they try to get a promotion or a raise.

Life mentorship

They have the least relevance here, so we'll keep it brief. Life mentors aren't necessarily part of the workplace. Their role is more based on helping their mentee understand how their career fits into and impacts the rest of their life. If a mentee leaves their current job or changes professions altogether, life mentors will often help them navigate this change.

But there are some things you should bear in mind regardless of what kind of mentor you are. Here are a few general tips to help you engage with your mentee effectively. You might notice that we've poached a couple of these from our list of performance review tips for managers. That's because management and mentorship can share a certain similarity. Essentially, you're helping an employee to better understand their role, and providing feedback to help them improve.

Set expectations and time boundaries

First-time mentees are probably a little unsure of what to expect. They might not even realise how much they actually stand to gain from being in a mentorship at work. Setting expectations gives the employee an idea of the effort you'll both be putting in. But it also of how the mentorship could stand to benefit them.

Time boundaries are important too. Maybe you have all the time in the world for your mentee, and if so, that's great. But far more likely, you'll still have your own responsibilities to consider. Set out times they can contact you. Establish channels for asynchronous communication for when you can't meet up. Leaving your door metaphorically open can go a long way.

Mentorship at work: A key element is frequent, personal communication.

Accept your mentee's current skill level

New roles come with a learning curve. A big part of mentorship at work is adjusting to the mentee you have. After all, if mistakes didn't happen, employees wouldn't need mentoring in the first place. You need to get a good understanding of where your mentee is at. Otherwise, you won't be able to help them continue to develop with constructive feedback.

Take an interest

"Employees don't quit jobs, they quit managers."

It's an adage so old it probably had to be translated into Latin from Proto-Germanic or something. But there's a kernel of wisdom in it that's worth bearing in mind for workplace mentorships too. If you're completely disinterested in your mentee's wellbeing and career progression, it's inevitably going to limit their engagement with your advice because you aren't empathising with them.

Practice active listening

It's important for your mentee to feel heard. As their mentor, you're meant to be a sounding board for them to voice their concerns when something goes wrong. Let them talk and engage with what they're saying before you launch into advice mode.

Ask questions and work through each aspect of the issue they're facing. This can also help you to be more emotionally intelligent in your mentorship. In turn, that will enable you to more effectively consider your mentee's workplace wellbeing.

The challenges of workplace mentorship

Mentorship at work isn't always easy. To begin with, it's vital to make sure employees get paired with suitable mentors. It might simply be a case of assigning them based on stated career interests like future areas of specialisation. Or perhaps you have an introverted employee in need of a mentor who can help them develop coping strategies. A mentor can also advocate for changes to make their workplace more accessible. 

Going back to how mentorships can benefit marginalised groups, key examples are the female, BAME and LGBTQ employees. These are people who often face discrimination in the workplace. Members of marginalised groups can potentially benefit more from a mentor who has experienced similar systemic difficulties. That's because they can offer advice from a place of first-hand understanding.

This also relates to the issue of accessibility. If not everyone can access these mentorships, they run the risk of perpetuating favouritism and elitism. If Jerry from three cubicles down has been getting personal guidance from a senior manager and you haven't, then, of course, he's in with a better shot at that promotion.

Sharing check-ins gives mentors valuable context

Finally, there's the issue of feedback and communication. We touched on it in our tips section. But it's important for an employee to know when you're accessible, and what their options are for reaching you. Feedback is most effective when it's timely and consistent. That's why face-to-face one-to-ones are best for building up a dialogue.

It's possible you could be mentored by a retired member of the company. But in any other situation, your mentor will have to fit you in around other responsibilities. Tools like Weekly10's check-in system can really make a difference. Even if mentees don't perform a check-in specifically set up for their mentor, they can still pass their updates up to them. This is a time-efficient way of making sure mentors stay up-to-date.

Could frequent feedback and continuous performance management, via a simple employee check-in help your mentors become more effective?