Mentoring and Soft Skills: The Perfect Match
By now, most of us know that having a mentoring culture at our companies can have a positive effect on the bottom line. But what is it about mentoring that makes it so effective in the long run? You could make a case for the 1:1 relationships, increased leadership skills of the mentee, higher retention rates, etc. But if you look even deeper, you’ll find there’s one thing at the bottom of it all - the use and development of soft skills.Soft Skills
Some people utilize them almost without thinking about it, while others don’t understand why we should bother. To some, the phrase doesn’t really seem to lend itself to a “business setting”, perhaps bringing to mind those companies that lean away from the technical end of things, such as say, a marketing firm or greeting card company.
The most important factors of success are all soft skills:
collaboration, active listening, critical thinking and problem solving.
A recent study by Google, a company chock full of STEM geniuses with serious scientific, technological and mathematical chops, found that the seven most important factors of success within the company were all soft skills, such as collaboration, active listening, critical thinking and problem solving. STEM expertise came in dead last. Google was so stunned by this that they changed their entire hiring and team building focus. They hired more people from the liberal arts sector and added secondary “B” teams, made up of mostly non-scientific folks who displayed talents for empathy, curiosity about their co-workers, problem-solving and equality. Partnered with the heavy hitting scientific and technology focused “A” teams, it turns out that the “B” teams steadily come up with the new ideas that made the most overall difference in the innovation sector.
Considering the importance of having these skills, you may be thinking, can soft skills be taught? Actually, yes! A few years ago, MIT Sloan conducted a randomized controlled trial around a 12-month soft skills training program across 5 garment factories in Bangalore. The program focused on communication, problem solving and decision making skills, among others. Within 8 months of program completion, the company that owned the factories saw approximately a 250 percent return on investment. Not only was there a huge boost to productivity, attendance and retention, the employees were also better at performing complex skills and working as a team.
These programs went on to show further positive benefits, as the people who had not attended began to emulate the behaviors of their co-workers who were program participants, thereby multiplying the effects of the training. This illustrates how, even in a technical or manufacturing setting, soft skills can have an incredible effect on a company’s bottom line.
As impressive as all this sounds, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with mentoring. Well, mentoring is tailor-made to encourage the growth of soft skills for a number of reasons.
Mentoring, no matter if we’re talking about a 1:1 partnership or a group setting, is a social learning relationship built on trust and respect.
Everything about that description is a soft skill - social implies communication, learning speaks to collaboration and problem-solving, relationship refers to empathy and connectedness, and you can’t have trust and respect without equality and open-mindedness. Let’s break this down a bit further and see how mentors can use these skills to have a positive impact on their mentees.
In a general sense, we all know that good communication is the backbone of any successful relationship, be it personal or professional. But what makes one person more adept at communicating than another? Your first thought might be in how well they express themselves but actually, it’s the opposite. Active listening is the best tool a great communicator can employ. When a mentor sets aside their own agenda, spends less time thinking about how they plan to respond, and to be present and truly focus on what their mentee is saying, it can lead to thoughtful questioning, which creates a more expansive conversation. By listening and questioning, you allow your mentee to reflect on possibilities, come up with their own solutions and ask questions in a safe, non-judgemental environment. You know you’ve gotten it right when your mentee mentions what a great communicator you are and most of what you’ve done is let them take the lead in your conversations.
Collaboration & Problem-Solving
Collaboration and problem-solving in a mentoring relationship is pretty much the same as when working on any project, except that the mentee should take the lead. As a mentor, the key to making the collaboration effective is to encourage your mentee to take responsibility for their learning but engage them where and when it is needed - show them how things are put into practice and provide insight on how to be successful. You can make this even more collaborative by taking this opportunity to join in on the learning and hold each other accountable for the outcomes. If your mentee hits a rough patch, remember that problem-solving doesn’t mean doing the work for them, so resist the urge to “save” your mentee. Pull out those stellar listening and questioning skills and guide them towards figuring out a solution for themselves, which will be more a more meaningful and lasting learning opportunity for your mentee.
Empathy & Connectedness
Empathy and connectedness can be a tricky fence to balance. While you don’t want to be overly familiar with your mentee or make them feel like you’re hovering, you also don’t want to be so unapproachable that your mentee feels hesitant about being open and honest with you. This is one of those topics that should be discussed at the beginning of the relationship and speaks to a high level of empathy in itself. Ask your mentee about topics of conversation that are off limits, if they are they comfortable with a casual relationship or if they prefer things to stay very professional, etc. Also clarify expectations around staying connected. Does your mentee want to receive information or emails from you between meetings or do they prefer to keep things within the confines of your meeting times? Another aspect of connectedness is finding out if your mentee is comfortable having you assist with introductions to additional people who may be helpful to their development. Even though most mentees would welcome that, don’t assume! The most important thing is to be savvy enough to provide your mentee with an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.
Equality & Open-Mindedness
One of the most challenging aspects of growing into an effective mentoring relationship is the development of trust between the mentor and mentee. Equality and open-mindedness are invaluable qualities that will help overcome some of the awkward power dynamics that can naturally occur when people who are at different stages in their careers begin to work together. A great way to lessen the gap between your levels of seniority is to share a mentoring skill that you’ve been working on as a development opportunity and to sincerely ask your mentee for feedback. By sharing that you too are still learning, it shows your mentee that you’re in this process together and you can learn from one another. Open-mindedness comes into play as you look for ways to support your mentee’s development efforts with purpose but without judgement and to find ways to promote the successes of your mentee.
So there you have it - developing soft skills through mentoring. Regardless of what type of industry you are in, your mentoring approach can be tailored to provide an environment where both you and your mentee are comfortable and open to learning from one another. And once your mentee has moved on to achieve more successes in their careers and to mentor others (hopefully), they will share these invaluable skills with a whole new crop of mentees, who in turn will become engaged, collaborative, and empathetic - truly soft skill savvy employees.