The word mentor originated in Greek mythology. In Homer’s Odyssey, King Odysseus arranges for his trusted friend and advisor to act as guardian for and to nurture and protect his son, Telemachus, while Odysseus is away to fight the Trojan War. The guardian’s name is Mentor. Mentor guides and advises Telemachus on his journey to find out what happened to his father. Today, we understand the word mentor to mean “a trusted counselor or guide” (Merriam-Webster, 2011). There are at least two people in a mentoring relationship, and both can gain valuable new knowledge, insight, and skills as a result of participating in this endeavor.
Mentors are all around you—even some who may not know they are your mentors. To reverse that, you may not be aware of how many people observe and emulate you. Adam Zimet, a business financial manager with the Office of Naval Research who has been in the workplace for a number of years, points out that others observe you and may assume that your behaviors are appropriate for the workplace. “All of us are viewed as mentors by others,” he says. “We all need to create our own personal presence; we need to look, talk, think, and act like the leaders we want others to be.”
Zimet learned this lesson when he was representing his company at a meeting with senior leaders, most of whom were significantly older than he was. As a nervous habit, he would make wisecracks, albeit polite ones, but wisecracks just the same. After a few of these meetings, his mentor took him aside. She told him that the reason he was representing the company at his tender age was because he had great ideas. However, she went on to say that when he made a joke during a meeting— even if the joke was well received—other people may have perceived him as insincere, a joker, and frivolous.
While joking around is good to lighten the atmosphere, there is a time and place for everything. In this case, when Zimet presented an idea, even if it was a good one, the other meeting participants may have been less likely to take it seriously. The company needed him to be respected for his good ideas. “The lesson from this mentor has stayed with me all my life,” he reflects. “Mentors can help you see yourself as others see you.”
Seventy-one percent of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs. A Sun Microsystems study of more than 1,000 employees over five years found that mentors were promoted six times more often than those not in the program; protégés were promoted five times more often than those not in the program; and retention rates were much higher for protégés (72 percent) and mentors (69 percent) than for employees who did not participate in the mentoring program (49 percent; Insala, 2011).
However, mentoring is not limited to those whose employers offer a formal program. In our highly connected world of social networking, new mentoring relationships are emerging as a result of savvy employees (and their employers) making connections and joining groups where they have access to potential mentoring matches. Eager learners and seasoned veterans who are willing to mentor them can easily connect and begin a consensual, mutually beneficial mentoring relationship. Anyone can start a mentoring relationship. And in a global and highly technology-driven world, more and more mentoring is started, and often sustained, virtually. Mentoring relationships are most frequently conducted on a one-to-one basis. However, mentoring can also take place in groups or one-to-many arrangements. Finally, while most mentoring relationships last for a predetermined period of time (usually nine months to one year), you can also arrange situational mentoring relationships to address a particular learning need or issue.
Who should try it?
Successful mentors are analytical are good communicators are highly organized possess in-depth knowledge of the organization have made a strong commitment to training and development value action learning are committed to being available are willing to provide open, honest feedback.
Successful protégés want to acquaint themselves with the company if they are new hires seek opportunities for career advancement are interested in other areas of the business want to expand their leadership abilities are successful in previous skill improvement efforts are willing to openly share information are willing to provide open, honest feedback persevere in the face of the ambiguity and awkwardness of learning new skills and making mistakes are committed to following through on action items and assignments.
Note: This article is excerpted from Employee Development on a Shoestring by Halelly Azulay.
© 2012 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.