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Real Mentorship Starts with Company Culture, Not Formal Programs

We hear it all the time. Ask executives and managers how junior talent is encouraged, developed, and supported, and you’ll hear some variation of this refrain: “We’ve got a mentoring program!” Even vague rumors of a mentoring “program” nested somewhere in HR allow too many leaders to check off the employee engagement and development blocks without carefully scrutinizing the quality, utilization rates, and outcomes of such formalized mentoring structures.

Here is the problem: Mentoring programs typically rely on single mentor-mentee matches, pairings that by nature are quite formal and hierarchical, when all the evidence shows that many employees — especially women — prefer mentorships with a more reciprocal and mutual character. Single mentors are also less career enhancing than robust developmental networks or mentoring constellations. What’s more, even the best mentoring programs are unlikely to achieve intended outcomes when the surrounding workplace is competitive and individualistic, and when senior members of the organization only engage in developing junior talent when pursued by a prospective mentee or “voluntold” to participate in formal program.

Mentoring programs alone won’t sufficiently engage or develop your junior talent, especially if your culture doesn’t encourage mentoring on a regular basis. What your company needs instead are mentors-of-the-moment.

Mentors-of-the-moment help to promote a mentoring culture where all members of the organization — especially those in the middle to upper ranks — seek opportunities in daily interactions to develop or grow junior colleagues and peers. The mentor-of-the-moment model flips the script on mentoring, from an onerous, formal, add-on obligation, to a delightful opportunity to use shorter exchanges to enhance self-esteem, self-confidence, and sense of belonging in someone junior. In this culture, trips to the coffee room, passing a colleague in the corridor, or lingering in the wake of meetings all become moments to greet an unfamiliar person, commend them on an excellent contribution, ask them about their career aspirations, or counter imposter syndrome symptoms with a well-timed affirmation.

Why does this approach to mentoring work? The mere exposure effect in social psychology supports the value of positive micro-exchanges in the workplace in building informal and increasingly bonded mentoring relationships. Even relatively brief interactions can lead to increasingly transformative developmental relationships. It is little wonder that most employees prefer organic or informal mentorships to those that feel forced or arbitrarily assigned.

Mentors-of-the-moment take advantage of daily opportunities to first notice and then engage junior colleagues. They place a high priority on learning names, and they are willing to detour from their schedule to make space for uplifting interactions with others. These momentary exchanges are not heavy lifts, yet they create fertile soil for collegiality, sponsorship, and mentoring. Each involves deliberate interest, encouragement, guidance, and visioning about how the junior person might soar. Yet in aggregate, these momentary interactions bolster self-efficacy, belonging, and excitement regarding career possibilities. Ultimately, they create a context for the formation of transformational relationships.

Creating a mentoring culture and enlisting a robust cadre of mentors-of-the-moment also leads to better retention, more loyalty and commitment among employees, stronger succession planning, more organic mentoring, and strengthening of resilient developmental networks or mentoring constellations in the workplace. Rather than a single assigned mentor, junior employees are more likely to construct a web of supportive relationships.

Such a culture is also more inclined to ensure that women and persons of color are engaged by senior leaders. Our research for our book Athena Rising indicates that many men are often reluctant to initiate formal mentorships with women to avoid being seen spending a significant amount of time with someone of the opposite sex. The majority of white men also tend to avoid these professional relationships across race, worrying they don’t have the cultural competence required or that a same-race mentor would be a better fit. Mentor-of-the-moment exchanges alleviate some of that worry by encouraging short (no commitment required) positive interactions, so these leaders are more likely to reach out to any junior employee, no matter their race or gender. What’s more, being seeing with people of all races and genders promotes a more inclusive brand for the leader, keeping rumors at bay.

How can leaders be better mentors-of-the-moment and create a mentoring culture? Here are several recommendations to get started:

Use simple mentor-of-the-moment conversation starters.

For instance:

“I noticed that you’ve been working on/doing great things in ____. Well done!”“I wonder if I could get your take on something I’m working on. I’d value your perspective.”“The hiring committee sure got it right bringing you on board. Now, how can we keep you here?”“In a perfect world, what would you be doing in 10 years? How can I help make it happen? Drop by if you’d like a sounding board.”

Deliberately check in with junior colleagues, too, who are starting new roles. See how things are going and offer support or resources as appropriate.

Talk about their successes.

When a team member achieves a career milestone or accomplishment, highlight their work in front of others to develop a sense of belonging, provide affirmation, and increase future opportunities.

Give — and take — feedback.

When you observe a junior employee in action, make time in your schedule to provide reinforcing feedback about what you found most impactful and what you learned. And be open to feedback yourself. When a peer — especially someone junior — gives feedback, don’t be defensive. Mutuality, trust, and care are hallmarks of a mentoring culture where a learning orientation helps everyone.

Ensure clarity, transparency, and accountability.

In her work on gender equity by design, Iris Bohnet offers three pillars to culture change with relevance to a mentoring culture. First, describe how daily mentoring behaviors are good for employees and essential for the organization’s long-term success. Second, be transparent about how everyday workplace interactions are crucial to achieving business outcomes, and why you allocate time and resources to ensuring more frequent mentoring exchanges in the workplace. Finally, hold people accountable for promoting and assessing the mentoring culture.

Annual evaluations might include such questions as: What day-to-day actions are you taking to foster a mentoring culture? How are you holding your direct reports accountable? What metrics do you have in place to track progress?

Hire and promote future mentors.

There is good evidence that the best mentors show an inclination toward prosocial behavior, a caring orientation, and terrific communication skills. When deciding among candidates to hire or promote, consider asking: How do you encourage people around you? Tell us about the most recent time you affirmed a junior colleague. Give an example of how you sponsored someone by telling others about her or his achievement. Can you provide the names of several junior employees you’ve engaged in positive career conversations recently?

Routinely assess the mentoring culture.

Conduct anonymous polls of junior employees to find out how they feel about the culture and who among your mid-level and senior leaders is exhibiting the desired mentoring behaviors.

Sample questions might include: To what extent do you feel cared for and engaged by more experienced employees? Who has expressed interest in and support for both you and your career aspirations? Is there someone at work you could turn to for a caring conversation if you ran into problems personally or professionally? If so, who are they?

Reinforce and reward mentoring behaviors.

Use transparent reinforcement (not punishment) to increase the frequency of desired mentoring behaviors. Use your assessment findings to provide public shout-outs and top performance evaluation ratings for employees most often named as caring and engaged colleagues. Fund high-profile awards to celebrate these prolific talent developers and star-makers.

Growing a world-class mentoring culture demands more than a matching program. Genuine mentoring values and daily mentoring behaviors must be embedded in the workplace DNA. Not only can mentor-of-the-moment exchanges offer a less-threatening alternative to an assigned “relationship,” they also fuel inclusion. Actively engaging colleagues with diverse experiences in frequent, transparent, affirming conversations may be less daunting than a formal assignment, especially when it is a clearly articulated performance expectation.

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