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Talent management: Is mentoring an effective way to retain talent?

Natalie Maroun

Talented and engaged employees are a valuable asset to any company yet, as many employers will tell you, talent management is difficult because good employees are hard to find – and keep. The most likely explanation is that talent goes where these people can prosper, seeking escape from what holds them back. If you provide mentoring facilities in your company and so show your employees that you're keen to develop them, will you be able to keep your talent from walking out the door?

Nurturing and managing talent is a serious matter. When you bring very talented people into an organisation, and there are too many obstacles in their way, they get frustrated and leave – which is why you often get a huge drop-off of great talent. This means you've got to put your talent management practices into high gear.

You need to remove the obstacles standing in the way of talented employees. Up until now, mentoring has been one of the favoured programmes in developing talent; however, more and more mentorship candidates are finding that being mentored is not a guaranteed yellow brick road to success.

A mentee in a creative agency environment once told me that he signed up for a year-long mentorship programme when he joined the company. "Initially, the process wasn't easy. I felt vulnerable and was scared of being judged. I imagine this is more the case when parties concerned have never been mentors or mentees before. But, if you can make it through those first few 'feeling out' sessions and keep an open and honest mind it can be an incredibly interesting and rewarding experience. Mentorship, like so many things, is all about how much you put in, what you're willing to put in, what you're willing to sacrifice, and that goes as much for mentees as it does for mentors."

Mentorships can be tricky

If you think about it, you're trying to get information from one person's head into another person's head. On top of this, you're trying to do it in real time. To be honest, I don't think anyone has come up with a successful mentoring programme yet.

One of the primary problems with many mentoring programmes is the lack of structure or parameters. We need to be able to answer the question 'to what end' before the programme even begins.

3 Vital components to a successful mentorship:

1. There needs to be match in ideology and values between the person being mentored and the mentor. For instance, teaming a mentor who is a stickler for punctuality with a person who struggles to meet deadlines or be on time is not going to work.

2. The mentor needs to be functionally more competent in the job than the person being mentored. There is no point in mentoring someone in a field in which you're unfamiliar. The first tier in mentorship is about functionality, i.e. improving your functionality and doing your job well.

3. The third criteria is the 'where are we headed' factor. Once the functionality level has been mastered, it's time to put sound talent management principles in place and look at where the candidate is headed as well as what advice and guidance he needs.

'Sponsorship' is the new buzzword in talent management

In addition to mentorship, a number of organisations are now starting to introduce a new talent development concept – 'sponsorship' - as outlined in Sylvia Ann Hewlett's new book (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor:

  • She describes sponsorship as a strategic workplace partnership between those with power and those with potential.
  • Unlike mentors, who she says merely act as sympathetic sounding boards, sponsors are people in positions of power who work on their protégé's behalf to clear obstacles, foster connections, assign higher-profile work to ease the move up the ranks, and provide support in case of stumbles.

I agree that we need sponsors in the workplace. Talented people who aren't sponsored get frustrated in corporate life with all its obstacles and often leave.

However, I don't agree that mentoring has had its day. I believe the two programmes are complementary and should work together. Sponsorship facilitates a talented employee's journey through an organisation, whereas mentorship is about developing and unearthing that talent. Sometimes, you'll have to start by removing the obstacles - e.g. if a company historically has never hired women into management, then that is an obstacle that needs to be removed for a talented female protégé - and sometimes you will have to start by developing the talent.

Natalie Maroun is the group managing director at LRMG. She dreams of propelling all organisations to great heights and believes that to reach optimal effectiveness, organisations need to empower, inspire and uplift their people. This means everything Natalie does is aimed at awakening her dream so that organisations can achieve so much more than they ever imagined. She threads experience through all her strategic consulting solutions and leads a dream team of carefully selected consultants who're aligned and committed. Natalie delivers management consulting experiences that are creatively and strategically different, leaving an indelible mark on her clients' organisations.