Amusing as it is to watch the whimsical exchanges between evil mastermind Gru and his minions in the “Despicable Me” movie franchise, in the end, the cult-like relationship doesn’t turn a single one of the little yellow followers into a leader. In the real world — where operating in a fast-paced, increasingly ambiguous and complex environment is just a part of doing business — minions are far from welcome.
Learning leaders have to continuously develop a dynamic pipeline of future leaders. Fortunately, a new generation of high potentials is streaming into the workforce in record numbers, and they’re hungry for personal and professional development. By strategically facilitating strong mentorships, learning leaders can both help satisfy employee needs and advance the organization’s business goals. To meet employee and business goals, organizations shouldn’t plan on mentorships looking like they have in the past, particularly if they want to develop diverse leaders.
Today, the traditional paradigm in which a charismatic executive leads an adoring, less-senior employee where power is often misaligned won’t do, explained executive coaching expert Wendy Mantel of Mantel Coaching Inc. Millennials want close, meaningful relationships with mentors. They also want to feel empowered to be authentic, to create and embody their own career brands.
“Engagement, learning, growth, visibility, relevance and opportunity are watchwords for this generation,” Mantel said in an email. These needs are also important guiding words for learning organizations developing new, or rethinking, established, mentoring approaches.
At IBM, mentorships are thought of less as a structured professional development tactic and more as a strategy for employees to exchange knowledge. The company’s more than 380,000 global employees are accessible to one another via the tech company’s social network, Connections, and they are empowered to choose and connect with their mentors through this channel.
Technology can be helpful for mentoring, a process often thought of solely in a face-to-face context, said Wagner DeNuzzo, director of leadership and management development programs at IBM. The way people work has changed dramatically, and technology-enabled speed is a key ingredient to how IBM employees get things done. “When we are facing clients — we might need information on an industry — we reach for each other very quickly,” DeNuzzo said.
Connections features communities and individual profiles where employees tag themselves and search for others based on expertise. Employees can find support systems, information and the help they need to navigate the external environment, their careers and their collaborations.
The employees drive the conversations, using each other’s expertise based on their roles and career and skill needs; they’re empowered to connect with as many resources as it takes. IBM’s diverse clients require diverse experience, DeNuzzo said, and in delivering that, employees have to keep in mind the distinct brand, which won’t be served well by just one role model or source of information.
“We’re not asking them to be mentored by one individual and emulate their behaviors,” he said. “We know the behaviors we need to show up in front of the client, but we ask that people not be a passive learner. We ask mentors and mentees to continuously exchange knowledge using all the data they have through colleagues and everybody else.”
Mentoring online allows IBM to assess social sentiment and gauge the effect, whether positive or negative, DeNuzzo said. He also credits IBM’s strong feedback culture, which creeps into mentorship relationships, as another facet helping to make them an effective development tool. A mentor stands to benefit greatly when the mentee has the courage to give feedback, he said. “That’s how we grow and become better IBMers.”
Mentorship Is a Two-Way Street
According to “Five More Deadly Mentoring Mistakes,” an article from the Center for Mentoring Excellence, good conversation is the heart and soul of successful mentoring relationships. Without this integral part of the relationship, learning is compromised.
The relationship also has to go both ways, and there has to be a meeting of the minds, which is why mentorships at General Motors — now powered by newly piloted software — centers around professional chemistry established through the platform’s matching technology.
It works like a dating website, explained Mimi Brent, GM’s global career development strategy leader. Based on an employee-generated profile, the system kicks back a list of recommended mentors whom they can learn more about and ultimately connect with using the portal.
This mentoring initiative, the latest leg of GM’s recast career development strategy, places employees firmly in the driver’s seat. “Mentoring is most successful when people can pick their own mentors,” Brent said.
The matching happens via a series of questions, as well as an internally developed personality assessment to gauge a mentor’s area of interest and expertise in mentoring. Mentors are asked what skills they feel comfortable guiding a mentee on, in which units of business they have expertise, and how many years of professional experience they have. Conversely, mentees are asked what skills they would like help in and how many years of professional experience they’d like their mentor to have.
While many mentees want to be matched with someone with decades of experience, they’re also encouraged to seek out peer mentors. These colleagues might not have 20 years in the business, but they do have valuable knowledge to share.
Following the assessment, mentees are matched with mentors who have similar personality types and skills selected, and mentees are given a list of up to 10 potential mentors. The list includes a match percentage for each prospective mentor.
Before mentors and mentees get started, they are encouraged to do some pre-work. The mentoring area of the company’s career development website has a growing library of resources for both mentors and mentees to access, such as how to make the most of a mentorship relationship and how to be a mentor. GM’s career development team also created a one-hour webinar for employees considering becoming mentors for the first time, or who want to improve.
Judy Corner, director of mentoring at talent development software-maker Insala, said this type of preparation and education on the front end is an imperative step to create mentorships that develop diverse leaders.
Not Everyone Can Be a Mentor
Identifying the organizations’ objectives for mentorship — what skills or expertise mentees need to learn and what qualifies mentors based on those needs — is an important task for learning leaders who are creating or improving a program. Identifying objectives can uncover misperceptions about mentoring that can yield unproductive experiences for all parties involved, including the organization. Then, these can be corrected before they cause problems. Here are three misperceptions:
- Somebody is really good at something, so they’ll be a good mentor. That’s not true, Corner said. “It takes very different skills to be good at doing something than it does to be able to impart, share and help an individual learn that knowledge in what they do.”
- A person is a senior leader, which automatically qualifies them to be a mentor. Not necessarily. Often, a person got to a senior-level position because they are good at what they do. That doesn’t mean they have the good communication, interpersonal, listening and relationship skills needed to be mentors. “A mentor has knowledge or experience in a given area of expertise and is willing and able to share that knowledge with another,” Corner said. “The willing means they are going to commit to the development of that individual, and the able means they actually have the skills to be a mentor.”
- It’s all about what the mentor has to offer. Also not true. Mentoring is a partnership where both people learn from one another. Mentees need to identify what they want to learn and what success looks like to them once they’ve learned it. “One of the worst things that can happen in a mentoring partnership is the mentor and mentee meet, and the mentor asks ‘What is it you want to learn?’ and the mentee says, ‘I don’t know.’ What do you think I should be learning?’ ” Corner said. That can be an incredible waste of time.
Learning leaders and others managing their company’s mentorships also can ensure their success by following up. Whether that happens via technology or in-person, no longer than eight weeks into the new partnership, Corner said, teams should be asked how the relationship is going.
She said if a mentorship runs about a year, the partnership often starts going downhill somewhere around the seven-month mark. That means the program starts to go downhill. “The program administrator needs to make sure they breathe new life into the partnership,” Corner said. Do whatever you need to do to make sure the mentorship stays exciting, active.”
For organizations to build mentorships that develop real leaders — not minions — they need to set objectives, identify measurements, plan to follow up, and make sure everyone is clear on their roles.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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