Best Practices for Changing Times
By Kimberly A. Smith-Jentsch
Contemporary research on mentoring has demonstrated many benefits, not only for the individual being mentored (e.g., pay and promotion), but also for the individual doing the mentoring (e.g., performance). Mentoring also benefits employers by facilitating organizational commitment and employee retention. However, as the nature of work and of careers has changed, so has the nature of mentoring relationships. People are working later into life and are more likely to change organizations, industries, and even professions over the course of their careers. Even if one were to remain at the same organization for their entire career (which is exceedingly rare today), the technologies we use are continually changing, our employees, customers, and clients are more diverse, and the economic environment is more volatile. This means that our skill sets must be continually updated so we can stay competitive.
It used to be that you were a “protégé” or “mentee” early in your career and became a “mentor” later in your career. Now, the most successful take on both roles throughout their careers. Reverse mentoring, where a younger and/or less experienced individual provides guidance to an older and/or more experienced individual, has become increasingly popular. Such relationships may take place in a formal way, where a junior employee or, in some cases, a college student is chosen and explicitly tasked with helping a senior executive learn new technologies and/or gain insights related to generational perspectives. Reverse mentoring may also take place informally between a supervisor or team leader and one of their employees. Whether formal or informal, mentoring others early in one’s career helps build leadership skills and expand professional networks, creating a “win-win” for all involved.
A Network of Mentors
Traditionally, mentoring was viewed as a long-term relationship and one that was somewhat “monogamous.” Today, it is much less likely that a single mentor can provide us with “one-stop shopping.” Instead, it is more common to have situational mentors or developmental advisors who each serve specific, short-term, and limited purposes. Diversity is key here. The most successful individuals have developmental networks that contain mentors with different areas of expertise, different skill sets, strengths and weaknesses, professional contacts and perspectives.
Self-awareness and Proactivity
In order to build an effective network of mentors, first you must be clear about your unique development needs and goals. Unlike traditional mentors, situational mentors do not have the time, opportunity, or motivation to do this for you. Given the abbreviated length and limited scope of these relationships, protégés also need to be proactive in communicating their needs and in guiding mentoring discussions. Not only will this increase the likelihood of having those needs fulfilled, but it will also reduce the time and energy required of the mentor. That, in turn, should make the mentor more willing to continue the relationship over a longer period of time.
Mentoring Best Practices
In summary, mentoring relationships look different today than they did in the past. Much has been written about how to be a good mentor and a good protégé in the traditional sense (most of which is still quite relevant), however changes to the workplace and to the nature of careers necessitate some additional best practices. Three of these are:
Consider yourself both a prospective “mentor” and “protégé.” While early in your careers, start thinking of yourself as a prospective mentor! For more seasoned professionals, never stop thinking of yourself as a prospective protégé/mentee!
Create a network of developmental advisors. Do not expect one mentor to fulfill all of your developmental needs. Continually look to expand your network with the goal of diversity.
Be proactive about identifying and communicating your developmental needs. Be clear on what you hope to get from each developmental relationship as well as what you can give back. Communicate this to your mentor/protégé. Set expectations early and periodically check in to ensure those expectations are being fulfilled. Course correct as needed.
Kimberly A. Smith-Jentsch, Ph.D is an Associate Professor of Management at the Crummer Graduate School of Business Rollins College.