Mentoring is a way for employers to foster employee and organizational growth by pairing less experienced workers with colleagues who have expertise in a specific area. The relationships can be used to provide career guidance, broaden networking opportunities or break down organizational silos, but setting up a program takes a thoughtful approach.
SHRM Online spoke with Paul MacCartney, who specializes in learning and cognitive science and has been in the learning and talent development (L&D) field for more than 30 years. Since 2016, he has served as chief learning officer at MentorcliQ, an award-winning mentoring software provider based in Columbus, Ohio.
He has held management and professorial roles with the Human Factors Laboratory at The Ohio State University in Columbus, where he earned a bachelor's degree in management and a master's degree in business administration in organizational leadership. MacCartney also served as a pilot with the U.S. Air Force for four years.
"We are all where we are today because of our mentors in the past," MacCartney said. "If we can get people and organizations to realize "I'm a product of everybody who has invested in me," that broadens your vision. You don't have to be Yoda. But you do have to be there, listen, advocate, care."
The following comments have been edited for brevity and clarity and to include additional comments MacCartney provided before and after the interview.
SHRM Online: Is a mentor the same as a coach?
Paul MacCartney: Coaching is more about functional skills, like a basketball coach showing someone how to dribble a ball. Mentoring is more about leadership, networking, communication, teamwork. Think of mentoring as being on a spectrum. On the far left side would be functional skills. On the right side is more personal development. All these programs fall somewhere on that spectrum.
SHRM Online: What are three do's and don'ts for starting a mentoring program?
MacCartney: My top three do's:
- Have a purpose and population in mind. Why are you creating a mentoring program, and who is it going to serve? That question, clearly answered, will go a long way to informing the design of the program.
- Recruit mentors vigorously. They are the scarce resource in your program. Plan accordingly.
- Set up the right structure—milestones, communications, feedback mechanisms. A little bit of structure goes a long way, but [having] no structure causes lackluster results.
In terms of don'ts in a mentoring program, here are my top ones:
- Don't take an "if you build it, they will come" approach. A new mentoring program must be marketed and nurtured.
- Don't build it and forget about it. Once the relationships have been created, expect to spend a couple of hours per month supporting people—matching, rematching, checking progress.
- Don't over-engineer it. Remember, mentoring isn't anyone's full-time job, so set your expectations of the participants appropriately. Mentors and mentees typically spend about one hour per month together.
SHRM Online: Mentoring often is associated with preparing younger workers to move up in an organization. How might it be used with seasoned workers other than in reverse mentoring?
MacCartney: Oftentimes, seasoned workers are midway through their career and start to feel a little bit stagnant. Mentoring is just giving them exposure to something else. It could be part of a literal move or gaining insight into other parts of the organization. Typically, these are more silo-busting or horizon-broadening relationships.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]
SHRM Online: What about remote workers? How can an organization mentor an employee who works offsite?
MacCartney: Remote mentoring relationships are becoming more common and can be done simply with a phone call. One man I talked to was in a mentoring relationship with someone two buildings away; they otherwise never pass each other at work.
SHRM Online: Who should be in charge of a mentoring program? Is it best to make the program formal with periodic updates and feedback or to take a more organic approach?
MacCartney: The mentorship coordinator doesn't have to have a long background in mentoring but does need to believe in it philosophically. A well-structured program can require as little as a couple of hours per month, so this can be done with minimal bandwidth consumption.
Oftentimes, it will start with the L&D person, where they feel a need within their specific function or role and they say, "I'm going to do some mentoring on my turf" and they build a program. Then usually it eventually moves over into HR as talent development—75 percent of the time, it ends up in talent development and the remaining 25 percent of the time it's in L&D or a specific function's area.
SHRM Online: What's the ideal pairing in a mentor relationship? Should the mentor be a direct supervisor, or could it be a peer?
MacCartney: Peer or one-level-up mentoring is more common in onboarding or buddy-type mentoring programs. In your traditional mentoring programs, the setup is typically one level above and up to two or three levels above.
SHRM Online: How long does a mentoring partnership typically last? Formal mentoring used to last a year or more and informal mentoring much longer.
MacCartney: It's completely dependent on the needs of the relationship. A classic mentoring relationship lasts months to a few years. A shorter-term "skills" or "networking" type relationship might last weeks to a few months. A lot of programs these days are taking a "big-tent" approach to mentoring: It's as long as it needs to be. A senior person may want a two- or four-week mentoring hit to do some networking, broaden their horizons or possibly find a new role to play.
SHRM Online: What are some steps organizations can take to prepare employees to be effective mentors?
MacCartney: Most adults have the basic skills to be a mentor: care, communicate, assist, advocate. But many people may not realize that they have the skills or may not know how to deploy those skills in a mentoring context. As a result, mentor training does two things that are equally important: It transfers existing life skills into a mentoring context, and it gives the mentor-to-be the confidence to feel that "Yeah, I can do this!"