By Jim Welp

If you’re a successful IT manager, chances are pretty good you had someone show you the ropes. Whether you participated in a formal mentoring program or simply had an experienced coworker take you under his or her wing, you probably didn’t learn everything you know on your own.

Given the complexity of today’s workplaces, it’s not hard to see the value of mentoring. However, you might not be aware of some of the benefits your company or department can reap from implementing a formal mentoring program.

In this article, I’ll take a look at some of the benefits. In the second part of this series, I’ll help you decide if a formal mentoring program is right for your team. In part three, I’ll offer some ways you can implement a formal mentoring program at your company.

What is mentoring?
At its broadest definition, a mentoring program is a formal relationship between a mentor and a protege, in which the mentor helps the protege achieve clearly defined goals. Simply put, “mentoring is the process in which people help others set important goals and develop the skills to reach them,” said Linda Phillips-Jones, vice president of The Mentoring Group in Grass Valley, CA. IT departments have long used formal mentoring programs to develop technical staff as well as managers.

But mentoring has evolved over the past decade, according to Les McKeown, president and CEO of Deliver The Promise, a Tiburon, CA, consulting firm that specializes in mentoring. “Until about 10 years ago, a mentor was almost universally seen as an older, senior person who would take someone more junior ‘under their wing,’ helping the protege in whatever manner seemed right to them at the time,” he said. “Today, mentoring is less power–related. It’s less about seniority and teaching, and more about sharing and development. In its purist sense, mentoring is about supporting and developing the all-around growth of the protege, not just making them better at their job.”

What are the benefits?
For many, especially senior management, “career development” can be a nebulous concept. Top brass wants a clear return on its investment in a mentoring program, and sometimes the benefits are tricky to measure. “For the organization to achieve some benefit, a mentoring program must be based on clearly defined program goals,” said McKeown. “Far too many mentoring programs have unclear, mushy, or no goals at all.” He cautioned against starting a mentoring program just because it seems like a good idea. “Rather than passively anticipating generic benefits, it’s crucial for the organization to decide what it wants from the mentoring relationship. A lack of clear objectives ultimately results in the breakdown of the mentoring relationships, as the participants do not know what is expected of them.”

However, Phillips-Jones and McKeown believe that mentoring programs provide many benefits. Not only does the protege stand to gain from a mentoring program, but the mentor and the company can also reap big rewards.

Benefits for the company
Just about any company stands to gain from a mentoring program. McKeown identified several direct, quantifiable benefits to establishing a formal mentoring program. McKeown said that a mentoring program:

  • Helps recruitment.
  • Improves employee retention.
  • Helps overcome learning curves.
  • Helps manage organizational change (such as mergers and acquisitions, downsizing).
  • Promotes highflyers.
  • Develops under-performers.
  • Bridges competency gaps.
  • Rejuvenates midcareer managers.
  • Converts training to results.
  • Facilitates internal hiring and transfers.
  • Encourages personal individual growth.
  • Increases the representation of minority interests (diversity).
  • Develops current managers.
  • Helps new employees obtain formal qualifications.

“For a mentoring program to be effective, it is essential that the organization clearly identifies which of these goals (one or two goals only—certainly no more than three) it wishes to achieve and to set clear metrics to establish whether those goals will be met,” McKeown said. “If the mentoring program is to escape future budget cuts, those metrics should be as clear as possible.”

Benefits for the protege
The protege, of course, stands to gain as well. Phillips-Jones said the protege gains the benefits of “faster learning, a chance to observe and emulate role models, new opportunities to meet people and to demonstrate skills, and increased self-confidence.” McKeown added that the protege gains an opportunity to “dry-run” critical decisions to a “confidential, nonjudgmental sounding board.”

But he cautioned against using “subjective, internal assessments as the basis of judging the success of the program as a whole. The program must be judged overall by whether or not it is meeting organizational goals, not the mentor or protege goals,” he said.

Benefits for the mentor
It’s not only the protege who stands to gain from a formal mentoring program. There are a lot of advantages to being a mentor, according to McKeown. He pointed to a broadened sense of responsibility, a sense of being trusted by the organization, and the challenge of advising rather than directing among the benefits of acting as a mentor. “For mentors, it’s a chance to pay back past mentors of their own,” added Phillips-Jones. “There’s also an opportunity to learn from proteges,” she said. “And the satisfaction of seeing someone grow.”

What do you think of mentoring?

Have you had experience with a mentoring program? Would you be interested implementing one? Share your thoughts with us. Send us some mail or post a comment.