Organizational learning requires the sharing and creation of knowledge through communication. Communication flows most effectively through meaningful relationships. Many organizations (70% of Fortune 500 companies, in one survey[i]) try to build meaningful relationships and transfer valuable knowledge through formal mentorship programs. Unfortunately, other studies show that access to these programs is limited and only about half of the mentees find the mentoring relationships to be useful[ii].
So, is mentoring a poor organizational learning strategy, or do organizations just not do it well?
Experts say the problem is the latter. Done right, mentorship has been shown to improve organizational and individual performance. But, organizations minimize those benefits if their leaders do not effectively cultivate mentorship relationships within their teams and throughout the organization.
To maximize the learning benefits of mentorship, leaders must develop a culture of authentic advocacy.
DEVELOP A CULTURE OF AUTHENTIC ADVOCACY.
Herminia Ibara of London Business School defines types of mentorship relationships by how much mentors are willing to publicly advocate for mentees and by how willing they are to be vulnerable and authentic. When mentorship relationships are low in advocacy and authenticity, it’s best to focus on instruction.
In other words, a transaction of knowledge and information from mentor to mentee.
In this case, it’s important that the mentee’s learning goals are specific and clearly articulated so that the mentor knows what instruction to provide and when they have succeeded in providing it. The motivation for this kind of transaction comes from our inherent desire for achievement.
Such transactional mentorship arrangements can have some benefits, but it is often short-lived—lasting only as long as the mentor is willing and able to give useful advice.
If advocacy and authenticity are high in the relationship, there is an increased potential for learning and performance improvement at both the individual and organizational level.
The relationship becomes more mutually rewarding as well.
For example, the mentor may open up their network to the mentee, strengthening relationships across the organization and providing more opportunities to share and create knowledge and visibly contribute to strategic outcomes. Furthermore, when the mentor and mentee develop trust through their authentic interaction, their commitment to each other and to the organization increases.
The relationship lasts and continues to benefit and strengthen the organization.
Advocacy is built through a shared sense of purpose and strengthened by organizational incentives to work toward the collective success of the organization. Unfortunately, many mentorship pairings are built on commonality, not shared purpose. Commonality and similarity are enemies of learning because mental models and experiences overlap, leaving little possibility for challenging one’s thinking or associating disparate concepts (most revolutionary innovations started with an unlikely mash-up such as, “What if you put Facebook and taxis together?”).
Shared purpose allows people with different ideas, skills, and experiences to travel together to the same destination while following different paths.
Leaders help build a shared purpose by communicating how different efforts support a common strategy and by incentivizing collective success rather than individual achievement.
For example, a firm whose mentorship program was open only to high-potential mentees nominated by a sponsor realized that it was only reinforcing a biased glass ceiling. So, it flipped the script. Instead of matching up-and-coming employees with mentors, the program focused on rewarding senior leaders for finding and cultivating relationships with under-sponsored employees and uncovering their hidden potential.
Authenticity is developed by creating an environment of psychological safety. To be authentic requires a degree of vulnerability, which can be scary, especially when good mentors are expected to have the right answer and good mentees are those who don’t make mistakes, or otherwise disappoint their mentors. For people to be vulnerably authentic in a mentorship relationship they must first believe that they will be accepted by each other, no matter how they show up. Yes, there may be conflicts in a mentorship relationship. A behavior by one person might not be acceptable to the other, but there is a shared understanding (established by the mentor) to separate the person from the problem.
Authenticity is also cultivated by empathetic support. To be willing to show our full selves, we must believe that others care to know who we are and are willing to support what we want to achieve.
Mentors create an environment for empathetic support by being curious about what mentees experience, how they feel, and what they need to find their own solutions to challenges.
Open questioning and active listening must be practiced by both mentor and mentee to develop reciprocal care and understanding. During the COVID crisis, a hospital leveraged the authentic mentorship relationships it had created to help medical staff cope with the extreme stress of the situation. Recognizing that well-intentioned senior staff were pushing themselves to the point of burnout, administrators recruited mentees to engage in reverse-mentoring.
Mentees, whom senior staff had been accustomed to putting ahead of themselves, sought out their mentors and engaged them with questions to help them name their emotions and then practiced reflective listening so that mentors could hear their stress-levels mirrored back to them. This helped medical staff become more mindful of their well-being and take advantage of support before burning out.
Human and organizational learning builds resilience and adaptability into organizations. Mentorship programs that cultivate authentic advocacy drive learning by sharing knowledge and developing skills across networks of relationships, bringing together a diversity of ideas and perspectives, and providing the emotional and practical support needed to overcome challenges.
[i] Gutner, Toddi. "Finding anchors in the storm: Mentors." The Wall Street Journal 27 (2009): 2009. [ii] Johnson, W. Brad, David G. Smith, and Jennifer Haythornthwaite. "Why your mentorship program isn’t working." Harvard Business Review 7 (2020).