Long before courses, academia and instructional YouTube videos, people acquired new skills through mentorships. Mentorships have a long and proud history in the development and nurturing of talent, and despite newer instructional methods like academic classes and professional courses, they’re still highly relevant – and popular! – today.
Today, mentorships are valued primarily for the benefits and insights that can only come from personal, one-on-one dynamics, and many companies continue to encourage and promote mentorship programs in addition to other learning practices.
With the COVID19 pandemic still raging, the age-old practice of mentoring has the potential to answer a very new need, and may be adopted by organizations which have never thought of turning to it before.
Let’s take a look at what mentorships can offer an organization, and what advantages they bring, both in the current crisis, and overall.
The first (and probably most obvious) function mentorships serve is the granting of professional guidance. There’s nobody who can’t benefit from an experienced perspective, and for people who are at the start of their careers, help from someone who’s already trodden a similar path can be life changing. Pairing up high-potential employees with experienced leaders ensures young talent won’t waste time, resources and valuable emotional toil on things which can easily be avoided with a gentle nudge in the right direction. Paired with a smart career pathing program, relevant matches between mentors and mentees can have a hugely synergistic effect, and help push the company forward. But that’s not the only advantage they offer.
While it’s clear what mentees have to gain from a mentorship program, it’s not often as immediately apparent what mentors get out of it. But to think that mentorship programs are a one-sided exchange is to underestimate the value these encounters hold for both sides. While young talent being mentored gets the benefit of experience and insight, mentors – especially if they’re in key managerial or executive roles – gain access to a vastly different point of view on their organizations from what they routinely encounter. Through conversations with the people they’re mentoring, they can learn about needs, gaps, and new practices within their company in a non-mediated way. These fresh perspectives can really help them understand what the situation is like “on the ground,” but they do more than that; they provide people in mentoring positions a valuable opportunity to re-examine their own position in the company, and to bounce new ideas off of the people they’ll influence most. This aspect of mentorships is so important, some organizations have special programs dedicated just to it, like Reverse-Mentoring.
Reverse-mentorships are exactly what they sound like. They take the mentor-mentee relationship and flip it on its head; rather than asking “what can this young, inexperienced person learn from someone who’s been down the path they’re pursuing,” they ask “what can this experienced person learn from the younger generation?”
Reverse mentorships stem from the belief that everyone’s perspectives and personal experiences have immense value, and that we can all teach – and learn – from each other.
Creating a space in which the organizational hierarchy can be flipped is more than just an exercise in humility, though: it places real responsibility on the young mentors, and helps them broaden their perspective, forcing them to ask questions like “what do my managers need from me,” and “where do I fit in, in the grander scheme of things.”
Of course, the more experienced (and higher ranking) individual in this dynamic will probably ask themselves these same questions, which can lead to some pretty amazing opportunities for the company as a whole, as we’ll soon see.
The personal relationships that mentorships help form have far-reaching ramifications, way beyond just the imparting of valuable information and experience. As mentors get to know the people they’re helping, they are able to open opportunities for them that they may not have been exposed to or aware of within the company, leading to better inter-organizational networking and a better utilization of the talent available to the business. These types of connections have the potential to act almost like a small-scale talent marketplace at times.
This way of networking is critical for organizations looking to become agile and responsive.
As we’ve seen, mentorships help talent grow, help everyone involved be more engaged, and can have the potential to increase and bolster organizational agility. But all of this was true even before the COVID19 crisis. Now, with the pandemic still raging, and social distancing becoming the new normal for the foreseeable future, mentorship programs offer something that can help bridge a gap many enterprises are increasingly struggling with; a non-mediated social experience within the company.
As more and more people work from home for increasingly longer periods of time, the challenges created by social distancing are becoming more apparent.
While creating a comfortable, conducive work environment at home comes with its own set of challenges, one of the biggest problems organizations now face is the growing personal gap between people working together.
Zoom conversations, Slack chats and emails are efficient in communicating about specific tasks, but the watercooler conversations of yore also had real value. Often, these non-committal conversations offered a type of sandbox environment where ideas could be bounced around and experimented with, and issues that don’t have a strictly defined place to be discussed in meetings or emails were aired out, and sometimes developed. As we move away from sharing physical spaces at work, we’ll need to create alternative digital spaces where this “lighter” form of communication is encouraged. Mentorship programs, where mentors and mentees get together to discuss various issues in a less structured way, can be a great opportunity to create these spaces digitally.
Having laid down the infrastructure for these types of encounters through the well-defined parameters of mentorship programs, companies can then move forward to create other types of employee-on-employee interactions, which will be in increasingly high demand as the New Normal continues to set in.
Mentorships are a critical tool in the HR arsenal of every company. They always have been, and likely always will be. Today, taking the new reality we’re facing head on requires us to acknowledge new problems, and to find new solutions. In the case of the social isolation we’re all going through, the age-old practice of mentorships may just be the key to the newest and biggest workplace challenge the 21st century has thrown our way.