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Don’t start a mentoring programme at work - unless you do it right

Axel Rittershaus
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I recently had a great conversation with an executive, during which we spoke about leadership, coaching and mentoring. He mentioned his company supports their executives with coaches. However, his company is aware that a coach isn't the right person for educating young executives on topics such as the company-internal rules and guidelines, and networks of influence. Even if the coach has worked with the company for many years, it isn't his job to educate his 'coachee'. My companion explained how he and his company had developed a solution to this challenge - one which is proving popular throughout many organisations.

Assign young executives a mentor

A mentor is a well-connected, experienced, long-term employee with valuable internal and industry-specific knowledge. The young executive receives knowledge from the proverbial 'horse's mouth', learns about failures and success principles without having to try out what has already been tested. In return, the mentor benefits from the 'feel-good' factor of helping the next generation get a headstart in their careers in the organisation.

This is the approach of many companies I deal with - from large well-known corporates through to mid-size businesses. They all establish mentoring programmes with huge expectations and almost all achieve the same result - failure.

In my experience, it's only a very small percentage of organisations that achieve success using this approach. For the others, failure comes as a result of the following issues:

  • Being an expert doesn't make a person a great mentor,
  • Mentoring requires respect and empathy from both parties, and
  • If there is an incentive system, which doesn't include the mentoring, the business targets always come first.

The third scenario is the most crucial one. If the mentor has to achieve his business targets, this will always come first - for good reason - as it is his primary function and reason for being employed.

Studies, such as one by the Australian Educational Research, have weighed in on this factor.

"In those that do qualify, most [companies] are already overburdened with organisational matters and professional responsibilities. To become engaged in another or possibly two or three time-consuming mentor-mentee relationships is very demanding... there is a strong risk of overloading the few available mentors."

When the mentor becomes overloaded, he reverts to his primary roles in the company and mentoring takes a backseat.

I had the opportunity to speak with a partner in a global technology company about this situation.

When he joined the company, he also was assigned a mentor. Sadly though, time after time his meetings with the assigned mentor were cancelled and soon became few and far between. Because of this experience, he no longer believes in the mentoring paradigm.

Let's now look at the small group of companies with successful mentoring programmes and how they give mentorship the necessary awareness and significance.

Important steps that need to be taken to develop a successful mentoring programme

These range from deciding who is really capable of being a mentor to finding the perfect match between mentor and mentee. This doesn't have to be too difficult or complicated - it just has to be done right.

The most important ingredient to ensure success is both simple and tough at the same time.

You have to align the mentee's success with the mentor's incentives

Compare the role of the mentor to the role of a soccer coach:

If his team wins, he'll get a large bonus. If his team fails, he won't get a bonus at all. The only difference is that the primary job of a football coach is to coach his team, while an executive has his specific obligations and mentoring is just an add-on.

Why is mentoring important?

Take a moment to give some thought to the 'why' of mentoring. The goal of this process is to:

  • Improve the business,
  • Leverage the skills of a young executive, and
  • Develop the next generation of leaders who will be responsible for the business' future success.

An executive who isn't building the next generation of leaders is not taking on mentoring responsibility. Instead, he or she is putting the future of the company at risk.

Incentive systems are part of the modern business world

Use incentive systems to make executives focus.

Imagine that as a mentor you wouldn't only be responsible for your mentee, but that 15% of your incentives would rely on his success. I am guessing that you would pay a lot more attention to him.

If the junior executive proves to be a low performer or doesn't have what it takes to succeed in your company or industry, then it is in the organisation's best interest to identify this and act as quickly as possible.

This scenario should be the exception and not the rule. If it's more than an exception, then you should be hearing alarm bells regarding the selection process of your executives as mentors.

To recap:

  • Mentoring is one of the most important ingredients to accelerate the performance of young or new executives,
  • The mentor needs to be the right fit to the individual mentee, and
  • Mentoring has to be in the interest of the mentor, which in most companies means part of the mentor's incentives has to be tied to the success of the mentee.

Ed's note: If you liked this article, be sure to read Women-to-women mentoring – the future of business networks?


Axel Rittershausis an internationally recognised leadership trainer, speaker, executive coach and advisor at C-Level and to senior executive teams. He focuses on leadership, empowering people and leading in times of change.

Before starting his coaching business, Axel was a serial entrepreneur in the IT industry for 15 years, working with clients such as the federal government of Germany, Oracle and Porsche. He has been member of the board of BITKOM, Europe's largest IT association and was also the founder of the working group eGovernment.


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