A better approach to mentoring at work

I had two kinds of mentors when I worked in big organizations. One was assigned to me as part of a mentoring program. He was a direct report of the head of our division, and his secretary would occasionally arrange a lunch appointment for us. Because of his position, I was cautious about what I said to him.

My other mentors weren’t part of any program. They were people I chose, either because they excelled at what they did or because they cared enough about me to listen and provide objective feedback.

Who do you think I learned more from?

Most companies I speak with fully understand the value of good mentoring relationships, yet they’re stuck with traditional programs. Here are two ways they can do better.

Peer mentoring

Part of what makes for a successful mentoring relationship is choice. Preserving both parties’ perception of control will directly increase their motivation. Another part is psychological safety. Even with the presumption of confidentiality, it’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re talking to someone who's directly responsible for your compensation or promotion (or is closely connected to someone who is).

Peer mentoring can help with these issues, especially if it’s a group of peers, and their aggregated knowledge, networks, and experience can be considerable. A Lean In Circle is a good example of such a group. 

Another example is a Working Out Loud Circle. Instead of offering just general support, each person takes specific steps towards a goal they care about, and develops relationship-building skills as they do. Simple guides for each meeting provide structure, and ensure that each person has both something to gain and something to offer. More than a conversation each week, it's a shared experience, one that individuals can repeat with each new goal they pursue.

Reverse mentors

Reverse mentor programs flip the traditional model, with a (generally) younger person providing some kind of coaching or support to a more senior manager. The programs are opt-in, which preserves autonomy on both sides. The topics are usually centered around things younger people would naturally know more about (technology, perhaps, or “what millenials want”). That preserves psychological safety. 

Such a program can provide a safe place for executives to learn about something new, and for the reverse mentor to become more familiar with what managers do and how they do it. But most programs lack the structure to provide meaningful exchanges or experiences, and waste the opportunity. It can become, like the lunches with my mentor, just a series of periodic chats. Nice, but insubstantial.

To solve that problem, there’s a version of Working Out Loud Guides specifically developed for such a program. (You could also use them with executive assistants acting as reverse mentors.) Each week, the guides specify preparation the reverse mentor does before the meeting. Then they offer the manager simple steps for using digital tools to reach and engage people. Through deliberate practice in each session, the executive learns how to search and listen online, to connect with people, and to reinforce desired behaviors. 

An experiment you can try in your organization

Though simple, these lightweight mentoring programs can solve some longstanding problems. 

Take, for example, the use of digital tools by executives. Organizations spend millions on new tools for communicating and collaborating, and yet most of their executives don’t take advantage of them. When I mentioned that to a group of HR professionals this week, the audience responded with a lot of head nodding and nervous laughter. “We have a lot of work to do,” they said. But they also agreed they could easily find ten managers who would participate in a “Digital Leaders” reverse mentoring program. Those ten managers, working in a more visible way, could then inspire the next twenty, and so on.

Another problem I wrote about recently is the on-boarding of employees. Companies put a lot of effort into orientation events that, over a few intense days, may well inspire people. But what happens after that? Those enthusiastic new joiners are left with little or no support for navigating their new organization. As an experiment, you could pick one orientation group and offer them the chance to form Working Out Loud Circles. Then use feedback from that first wave to validate that they’re indeed more productive and connected more quickly.

You know you can do better than the traditional programs. Take a small step and see for yourself.