Four Key Elements of Mentoring

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Achieving More Effective Mentoring

Mentoring is increasingly recognized as an important ingredient of professional growth. But traditional views of the mentoring role can hamper its effectiveness and success. At Cornerstone Research, we have found that a more expansive approach to mentoring provides greater impact. Taking such an expansive view of mentoring is a powerful tool that empowers individuals to work toward their highest potential, and enables firms to build and sustain strong mentoring cultures.

There is widespread consensus that mentoring is critical to the long-term success of an organization. Based on our experience and surveys within our organization, we believe the most effective mentoring relies not on role-based definitions, but on framing mentoring as a set of defined behaviors and practices that can originate with many different people.

A Behavior-Centered Approach to Mentoring

The traditional view of the mentor role tends to be a flat depiction of a senior leader taking a junior professional under their wing and imparting the formula for success. This role-based approach can be limited, constrained both by the bilateral nature of the relationship and the implication that a single mentor has all the answers.

Perceptions vary about what mentoring means. Some people define it as a “process” or “form of leadership,” while others frame it as an “opportunity,” “mindset,” or “set of actions.” At Cornerstone Research, we have found success by focusing not on what mentoring is but rather on the behaviors that are involved in doing it effectively.

While traditional mentor-mentee relationships still evolve organically at our firm, we also proactively guide and encourage employees to cultivate a network of mentors who play different roles based on natural strengths. A network-based approach more consistently leverages the comparative strengths of individual people. It also expands the firm’s overall mentoring capacity and pool of potential mentor relationships.

Based on our experience and surveys within our organization, we believe the most effective mentoring relies not on role-based definitions, but on framing mentoring as a set of defined behaviors and practices that can originate with many different people.

The Four Elements of Effective Mentoring

We use an approach that segments mentoring into four elements: feedback; opportunity creation; connections and counsel; and role modeling. In every element, the mentoring relationship becomes even more effective when the mentee shares responsibility and takes an active part in the process.

  1. Feedback

    Mentors play an important role in recognizing positive contributions, offering specific coaching on work-product or delivery, and providing clear, direct feedback to mentees. Assigned evaluator roles for performance reviews can provide some basis for mentoring relationships, but we have found that the most valuable mentor feedback comes from working on projects together.

    To make the most of those opportunities, mentors should give feedback in close to real time, discussing the best way to handle a given situation and why. For their part, mentees should be proactive about soliciting feedback regularly and striving to implement it.
  2. Opportunity Creation

    Effective mentors proactively identify opportunities that both serve clients’ needs and align with mentees’ career plans. They create “stretch roles” to accelerate mentees’ career development.

    Mentors should be explicit when providing opportunities to mentees. When staffing a person to work on a well-matched project, the mentor should explain why the assignment is an opportunity to develop expertise in a given area. For mentees, we encourage them to be specific about the opportunities that interest them. If they want opportunities that involve a particular topic, role, or client, they should be clear about their interest.
  3. Connections and Counsel

    Effective mentors provide career counsel that is both specific to the individual mentee and actionable. Mentors should help mentees identify, process, and prioritize the various actions they can take to, say, solve a particular problem, build their expertise, or advance their careers. Mentors can offer invaluable experience in weighing the pros and cons of potential options, and thoughtful guidance in choosing the appropriate path.
  4. Role Modeling

    In its most complete form, role modeling includes actively mentoring mentees, so they become the mentors of tomorrow. Rather than assuming that mentees will naturally invest time in mentoring others, leaders can create a culture of accountability by regularly asking how team members are doing and challenging them to develop one another as they collaborate on a given project.

    Cornerstone Research’s behavior-centered approach to mentoring both facilitates and relies on significant participation across the organization, regardless of role or gender. In the internal surveys and interviews we have conducted about mentoring, gender was only mentioned in the context of mentees asking mentors to help create connections to other potential mentors. In those instances, female mentees placed higher importance on woman-to-woman mentoring.

    One of the most powerful levers to support effective mentoring—and one that is available without much incremental investment of time—is providing opportunities for mentees to learn through observation. For example, after a client call or meeting, mentors can take a few minutes to explain why they handled a situation as they did. In parallel, mentees should identify the opportunities that will enable them to observe their mentors “in action,” and learn from their experience.

Traditional one-on-one mentor-mentee relationships still exist and develop at Cornerstone Research—and they play an important role—but building on a more expansive, network-based approach to mentoring has proven to be more effective. Cultivating a shared understanding that each individual can be an effective mentor in their areas of comparative strength encourages long-term mentoring relationships that emerge and evolve organically, and enables an organization to make the most of its mentoring resources.

Based on our experience and surveys within our organization, we believe the most effective mentoring relies not on role-based definitions, but on framing mentoring as a set of defined behaviors and practices that can originate with many different people.