posted 1 Jun 2001 in Volume 4 Issue 9
The power of mentoring
Mentoring techniques can go a long way to ensuring employees feel included in an organisation’s corporate culture and in encouraging the formation of networks. David Clutterbuck explores the principles behind the approach and discusses the issues to consider before integrating mentoring with your broader knowledge management programme.
In an experiment several years ago I invited several hundred human resource professionals to describe how they learned most frequently and most intensively. The most frequent source of learning not surprisingly was through peers at work; the most intensive was some form of mentor. (For most people their line manager scarcely figured at all!)
In the past decade mentoring has evolved from an obscure process experienced by a fortunate and sometimes privileged few to a major instrument of change within organisations and society at large. It has also become one of the strongest drivers of knowledge management contributing to the ‘soft’ interpersonal aspects that balance the aggressive dissemination of technological solutions to the capture and dissemination of knowledge.
So what is mentoring?
At the library of The European Mentoring Centre we have a collection of perhaps 100 different definitions of mentoring based on different perspectives. However there seem to be two main schools of thought: the traditional US sponsorship-oriented approach and European development mentoring. The former assumes that the mentor is someone much more senior who uses his or her power or influence on behalf of the learner who is most often referred to as a protégé. An example of such a definition is: “A process in which one person…is responsible for overseeing the career and development of another.” Developmental mentoring on the other hand aims at helping the ‘mentee’ achieve self-reliance is based on the experience gap rather than the hierarchy gap and carries with it an expectation of mutual learning. The most commonly used definition is: “Off-line help by one person to another in making significant transitions in knowledge work or thinking.” Another definition which comes from the same philosophical approach is: “To help and support people to manage their own learning in order to maximise their potential develop their skills improve their performance and become the person they want to be.” (Eric Parslow)
Both the latter definitions – but not the former – allow for imaginative programmes such as that of Proctor & Gamble where the mentors are junior/middle management female managers and the mentees are senior male managers. The mentors’ role here is to share their experience of the real world helping the executives understand issues of diversity – highly relevant in an organisation that makes most of its sales to women.
The origins of mentoring lie in early human history. The ability of homosapiens to pass on accumulated experience in the abstract seems to have been one of the key competitive advantages against other species such as Neanderthal man. The source of learning – or wisdom – was typically not the parent but the grandparent who had more time for reflection and was out of the parent-child disciplinary loop. Much of this transfer of knowledge was intuitive or implicit in nature – things that required contextual and conceptual understanding to absorb.
The role of the mentor is qualitatively different from each of the other roles as they are different from each other. There is a strong correlation here with the cascade of learning. Broadly speaking teachers focus primarily on data and information; tutors on knowledge; coaches on skills; and mentors on wisdom (where wisdom is the ability to extrapolate from and apply knowledge and skills gained in one context to completely new circumstances or contexts).
Mentoring therefore supports knowledge management processes in an integrative manner and contributes particularly to the transfer of intuitive implicit knowledge at both practical and conceptual levels.
How mentoring contributes to knowledge management
Mentoring provides this transfer of implicit knowledge in a number of ways. Understanding corporate politics
For the more junior employee especially the politics of the organisation can be a minefield. A mentor with greater experience can help the mentee develop a mental map of who to cultivate who to avoid what behaviours and track record are most and least valued – all factors that help make the mentee more effective and that are useful in managing their career options.
Interpreting the corporate values and vision
Companies spend millions of pounds encouraging employees to live their values. Much of this spend is wasted because people fail to see the relevance of abstract concepts to them and their work. Dialogue between mentor and mentee helps to make these connections explicit especially when they discuss issues arising from current work and experience.
The more senior people become in the organisation the more they rely on networks firstly to get things done and secondly to find out what is going on. These two interconnected types of network (which we commonly refer to as influence and information networks) need active management to sustain them. Mentors help in several ways. First they open the mentee’s mind to what can be achieved through networking in particular with the wide variety of people other than the mentor who can be useful learning resources. Next they share their own networks providing introductions that circumvent normal opportunities to build relationships. And third they help the mentee think through what kind of networks they need who should be in them and how they will link with those people. The last of these requires the learner to develop an understanding of the complexities of social exchange in the extended network – in other words what do I have to put in to get out what I need?
Retention of knowledge workers
When people quit their knowledge largely goes with them so it pays for organisations to encourage people to stay. The case evidence for impact on retention is striking. For example at Bank of Ireland the first year of a mentoring programme aimed at graduate recruits saw the attrition rate fall from 25 per cent in the first year to just 8 per cent. The mechanisms at work here are complex but they include enhancing employees’ sense of being valued helping them to see alternative opportunities within the organisation if they are unhappy with their current role and simply having someone to listen to their frustrations.
When the mentee has a specific transition to make – for example to their first general management job – the mentor often helps them structure the learning steps they need to take. Behavioural changes in particular are often easier when they are broken down into clear steps. Here the mentor uses his or her tacit knowledge – based on their own experience of similar transitions – to ask questions that enable the learner to develop a logical approach that they can commit to both intellectually and emotionally.
Effective mentors help people to develop a greater understanding of their own drives fears motivations and limitations. They engage the mentee in reflective dialogue that digs more deeply into issues and events than would normally be possible in the hectic day-to-day routine. Then they help the mentee apply that self-knowledge to decisions for example about career choices work approaches and how to deal with colleagues.
Developing the skills of dialogue
Both mentor and mentee benefit from building their competence at dialogue. Knowledge transfer is relatively limited in transactional communication such as giving instruction or discussing a project but at its highest level in dialogue.
Creating reflective space
On average less than five per cent of knowledge workers find viable time to reflect while they are at work. At least 20 minutes in a relaxed uninterrupted environment is normally needed to think deeply about one issue – and such periods are rare. Most serious reflective thinking takes place while the person is travelling or exercising or relaxing at home. Mentoring is the one opportunity to enter into reflective space during working hours. The inner dialogue that underpins personal reflection is augmented by the presence of an effective mentor who can ask similar questions to those the individual may ask of him/herself but more penetratingly more doggedly and from a different set of perspectives.
Having a sounding board
Testing the quality of thinking is an essential part of learning. Mentoring enables the learner to benchmark their perceptions against those of a disinterested but well-disposed third party. In this way the mentor also has to examine critically what s/he knows and is sharing.
A recurrent theme in all these examples is the mutuality of learning in developmental mentoring. We sometimes refer to this kind of relationship as a development alliance because it benefits both parties and in most cases the organisation.
What makes a good mentor/mentee?
An effective mentor is one who can respond effectively and appropriately to the mentee’s needs. So the range of skills and characteristics required can be quite broad. There are however some generics. The mentor must want to be there. He or she must have a genuine interest in helping others and in learning for himself. (Interestingly some of the recent research suggests strongly that a mentor who has a clear personal goal from the relationship achieves more for the mentee than the person who is simply acting out of altruism.)
The mentor also needs to be someone who is:
- Able to temper the natural desire to give advice reserving this as just one of the options for helping the mentee;
- Personally self-aware and to a degree self-critical;
- Competent as a communicator;
- Experienced both in depth and breadth;
- Able to change the mood and tone of dialogue as needed;
- High in personal integrity;
- Able to empathise with the mentee’s situation (having been a mentee in turn helps).
Some people make better mentees than others too. Again seeing value in the relationship makes for a good foundation. Having a clear idea of what you want to become/what you want to learn helps too though it may be the mentor’s role initially to help establish that clarity. In general mentees who take the initiative and are prepared to play an active role in managing the relationship extract the greatest value from it.
The formal/informal debate
One of the fiercest debates about mentoring is whether it is best formalised or allowed to develop informally. This has implications for the role of mentoring in knowledge management because management implies a degree of control. The arguments for formality include the fact that it encourages diversity and with it the sharing of different sets of knowledge and experience. Many structured schemes deliberately pair people across disciplines and departments as well as hierarchy levels to maximise the exchange of ideas. Informal schemes tend to encourage like-with-like pairings where the potential for learning is smaller. However informal relationships appear to be emotionally stronger and longer lasting.
The practical reality is that mentoring seems to flourish best when there is enough structure to provide purpose for learning relationships and to support people through guidance on matching and through training in the skills of being a mentor or mentee. In such an environment formal mentoring becomes the conduit for informal learning relationships. This is a difficult balance to maintain but the results seem typically to be a significant increase in the sharing of wisdom across the organisation.
Integrating mentoring into knowledge management
In general knowledge management and mentoring have been regarded and applied as separate processes. A more integrated approach would include:
- Identifying more clearly the ‘experience pool’ to encourage more relevant perhaps more challenging mentoring pairings;
- Increasing awareness of the value of intuitive knowledge – of wisdom – and recognising/rewarding people for activity in sharing their store of wisdom;
- Creating more opportunity for reflective dialogue – building time and space into the working environment for people to explore ideas and share learning either face to face or in web space.
The last of these is perhaps the most challenging. As a recent study of learning in teams indicates companies are increasingly focusing on task achievement and less on learning from the task. If we intend knowledge management to transcend the mechanical and superficial and reach the dynamic thoughtful regions of intuitive knowledge then mentoring is an essential element in the package.
Dr David Clutterbuck is a co-founder of the European Mentoring Centre. He is visiting professor at Sheffield Hallam University senior partner at Clutterbuck Associates and chairman of communication consultancy item. He can be contacted via: www.clutterbuckassociates.co.uk