Partners in Learning: Cultivating the Mentor-Mentee Relationship

The secret to success is to figure out what you do best—and then make that your focus. When applied to an individual, the principle is powerful. Apply it to a company of motivated employees, though, and you’ll create a strong culture of entrepreneurship throughout your entire business. So just how do you encourage employees to do their very best? You can provide guidance the way your teachers, coaches and other role models did to help you discover your own potential. And a good way to do that is by creating a mentoring program.

Modern Mentoring Is a Two-Way Street

The word “mentor” comes from the name of a character in Homer’s The Odyssey: the wise old man whom Odysseus asked to look after his son before departing for the Trojan War. Odysseus was eventually gone from his native Ithaca for 20 years; quite a mentoring task, indeed!

Although the name remains, mentoring has come a long way since the days of The Odyssey. In her book, The Mentee’s Guide: Making Mentoring Work for You, Lois Zachary identifies the seven elements that make for a successful mentoring relationship in today’s business world:

  • Reciprocity: Equal engagement on the part of mentor and mentee.
  • Learning: An active process in which the mentee gains knowledge, broadened perspectives, and a deepened self-understanding.
  • Relationship: Developed through investment of time, work and—crucially—trust.
  • Partnership: The involvement of both partners in establishing agreements and becoming attuned to each other’s needs.
  • Collaboration: The willingness of each party to share their experiences with openness and authenticity.
  • Mutually defined goals: Clearly articulated and continuously revisited throughout the mentoring process.
  • Development: Growth of skills, abilities and thinking, to help mentees progress from where they are to where they want to be.

In the old model, the all-knowing employee was supposed to fill up the mentee with knowledge. Today’s mentoring relationship, however, envisions the relationship as one of equal participation—a mutual journey to career development. In other words, if Homer’s Mentor were around today, he would listen as much as he speaks.

Creating a Mentorship Culture

“Great mentorship happens in places where feedback and personal development are part of the organization’s culture,” says Christie George, director of New Media Ventures, a national network of angel investors who support socially conscious media and tech startups. “Whereas a mentorship program established in a vacuum is likely to fail, one that complements a comprehensive and existing set of planning, reviews and feedback is much more likely to succeed.”

At New Media Ventures, employees help set their own goals to ensure that they get to work on what is most exciting to them. Communication is fostered by a series of biweekly check-ins called “10-10s.” Here, both the employee and supervisor offer 10 minutes of feedback on issues that occurred over the prior two weeks. “The regularity of the check-ins is an effective way of ensuring that growth is a continuous and active part of our culture,” George adds.

In addition to the traditional one-on-one relationship, a mentoring cohort allows a group of mentees to work together with a guide. The collective aspect of the cohort can allow for a rich, diverse and more lasting set of relationships to develop.

Shadowing is another mentorship style, where a mentee accompanies, observes and even collaborates with the mentor while performing his or her professional duties. Including mentoring in on-the-job situations provides real-world training and can create strong bonds between the two partners.

Regardless of the model employed, Christie George reminds us that there is one fundamental prerequisite for any successful mentoring program to work. “Define what success looks like,” she says, “for the mentors, the mentees and for your organization itself.” Without a structure, scheduled meeting times and a few choice incentives like a once-a-month lunch stipend, mentoring is likely to fall by the wayside in your already busy business.