The Importance of a Mentoring Culture (and How to Build One)

Larry Kravitz


The Importance of a Mentoring Culture (and How to Build One)

As highly social creatures, we tend to establish or adapt to existing culture wherever we go. If you put two of us in a room together, you’ll have cultural norms established within an hour that will carry over as you introduce more people into the group. However, the culture of any organization is also heavily impacted by the examples our leaders set. At Henry Schein, our culture is strong because our leaders live by our values every day. 

Talent and development structures like mentoring operate much the same way. Mentoring often starts organically within an organization. Someone in a leadership position takes it upon themselves to be a mentor to someone else, and over time, that becomes part of the culture. Relying on the organic approach, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Only those individuals who are confident enough to ask someone to mentor them or who are lucky enough to get independently approached by a mentor will get one. There’s plenty of data that points to the inequities that exist within fully organic mentoring cultures, as leaders tend only to mentor those who are similar to themselves. 

Companies with a strong mentoring culture tend to have employees who are happier, more productive, highly skilled, and more likely to stay. Those companies are also far more thoughtful about their approach to mentoring by pairing the organic nature of human interaction and professional development with a deliberate and structured approach that ensures mentoring is not only equitable across the organization but also broadly impactful and measurable. 

What Is a Mentoring Culture?

Creating a mentoring culture is hard to do if you don’t know what a mentoring culture is supposed to be or what it’s supposed to look like, so we’ll start there.

  • Mentoring culture is when team members help each other succeed and develop.

This can take place through formal mentoring relationships, informal mentoring conversations, or even through helping each other network across the organization or more broadly. These regular interactions all have a common element: development

Whether that’s personal development, professional development, or skills development, these engagements have a distinct DNA built around one individual with more experience in a topic using that experience to help a colleague grow.

The Unique Attributes of a Mentoring Culture

A mentoring culture tends to have two unique attributes that distinguish it from a culture where mentoring is not the default part of how people interact: mentors are intrinsically motivated to help others, and mentees feel empowered to learn. 

1. Intrinsic motivation means you don’t have to use coercion tactics

Two women in an office giving a high five, representing a positive mentoring culture and support networks.

A mentoring culture is highlighted by how eager individuals at your organization are to engage with one another in mentoring relationships. When people actively desire personal and professional development through mentoring, they’ll take any opportunity they can get. 

At Henry Schein, our team members, whom we call Team Schein Members, or TSMs, exude this type of commitment to each other’s development. Through our commitment of being a higher ambition organization, our TSMs have the desire to help each other grow and develop in different ways, we find that engagement in our formal and structured mentoring programs is high. 

As a result, we don’t have to force our TSMs to join mentoring programs. What you want is an attitude within your organization that says, “Hey, if somebody needs help, we’ll help them.”

2. Empowered mentees take control of their own learning

In 2022, SHRM found that 68% of employees would stay longer if their company helped upskill them, and 65% would stay longer if their company helped reskill them. That begs the question, however: who’s determining what your employees need? 

Quite often, nobody knows the skills gaps your employees have better than they do. Most mentees know exactly what they’re struggling to do and what they want to learn to get there. Their biggest challenge tends to be a lack of support to make that learning happen. This is why empowered mentees are successful mentees. 

When you create the structure they need to guide their own success, they’re far more likely to engage in mentoring relationships that allow them to develop the way they need most. 

This mindset and approach was one of the strategies that have helped sustain the mentoring culture at Henry Schein. We wanted to make it very easy for mentees to have that kind of control. It was in their hands to figure out what they need based on what they were looking for and who the best mentor for them would be.

The Positive Impact of Creating a Mentoring Culture

Every Talent and Development leader we’ve ever met is chasing results. There’s a distinct emotional element involved in helping employees learn and grow, but you can’t completely distance it from the ultimate business needs associated with L&D.

Man and woman on a couch discussing career mentoring advice.

Any program, be it mentoring, leadership development, or skill-specific training, ultimately needs to be aligned with both the personal growth of employees and the strategic objectives of the organization. It’s a balancing act between fostering individual potential and driving tangible business outcomes.

That said, Henry Schein has seen incredible benefits to growing a mentoring culture organically and supporting that culture with intentional, inorganic structures and frameworks. 

We did the research two years ago and found that the rate of tenure went up by one year for employees who engage in formal mentoring relationships. We also found a 33% increase in the promotion rate for TSMs who participate in programs compared to those who do not.

Additionally, 49 out of 50 questions in our 2022 pulse survey were rated higher by those who participated in our mentoring program than by those who didn’t. This is an indication that participating in the mentoring culture through formal mentoring results in better employee satisfaction, engagement, and stronger outcomes for those who participate. 

3 Strategy Tips to Help You Build a Mentoring Culture

Now that you have a better understanding of what a mentoring culture looks like and the results you can get from it, we recommend you take the next step. Create a functional strategy that will help you either plant the seeds that will invigorate a mentoring culture at your organization or help accelerate cultural growth if you’ve already started the process. 

1. Develop a clear and flexible plan

Start with a solid strategy. Keep in mind that building a mentoring culture is a journey, not a sprint. Allow for buffer time to navigate unexpected challenges and adapt your plan as needed. To make this work effectively, you’re going to need a structured plan. 

At Henry Schein, this takes the form of a Mentoring Program Charter. In our charter, we establish:

  • Guiding principles
  • Clear definitions of roles and responsibilities for mentors and mentees
  • Internal success data
  • External research
  • Phased technology-enabled mentoring implementation strategy
  • Detailed timelines for execution

This approach not only helps executive leaders understand the business-aligned value of mentoring but also the necessary resources, how those resources are used, and realistic outcome expectations. 

2. Secure the right sponsors and champions

Two men in an office talking, depicting a positive mentoring culture.

In the 2023 edition of its Trust Barometer, Edelman found that “my CEO” was the third-most trusted individual in people’s lives (64%), and “my coworkers” was second (73%). Interestingly, company CEOs and coworkers curried favor and trust above people’s neighbors, people in their community, citizens of their country, other company CEOs, journalists, and government leaders.

Employees place an incredible amount of trust and respect in the people they work with, both laterally and vertically. As a result, if your CEO and other executive leaders are the key champions of mentoring at your organization, you can expect a mentoring culture to develop far more easily. And if you have strong voices among the team outside of the C-suite, you should leverage those individuals as spokespeople for mentoring.

Identify and engage sponsors and champions at various levels within your organization. These individuals should be enthusiastic about sharing their mentoring experiences and promoting the program. Their support is crucial in generating wider organizational buy-in.

3. Focus on effective communication

Make sure your communication strategy is concise and engaging. In today’s fast-paced world, nobody has the time for lengthy emails. Aim for quick, digestible, and compelling messages that capture the essence of your mentoring program and its benefits.

By incorporating these tips into your strategy, you can effectively lay the foundation for a robust mentoring culture or enhance the one you have. Remember, a successful mentoring culture not only benefits individuals but also contributes significantly to the overall health and progress of your organization.

*Michelle Lally, Organizational Development Specialist at Henry Schein Inc., contributed to this article.