Leaders tend to have one of two opinions on the value of mentoring inexperienced workers: either “it’s something that would be nice to do if only I had the time,” or “it’s a complete waste of time.” But in truth, mentoring is never a waste. In fact, it can boost the productivity of both the mentee and mentor significantly, and by doing so, it contributes to the success of the entire organization.
But mentoring becomes a productivity accelerator only when taken seriously—i.e., when it becomes more than lip service or an educational tool indulged in as time permits. Productive mentoring kicks it up a notch, driving performance and challenging mentees to grow into their roles in profitable ways.
Making It Work
Everyone involved must be willing to take time for mentoring; you can’t undertake it in a halfhearted way if you expect worthwhile results. Nor can it be a simple supportive initiative in which the mentor simply dispenses knowledge. The teaching method should be largely Socratic: asking, rather than telling.
Certainly, mentors should lay the groundwork first with basics such as organizational rules and structure (mentors don’t have to supervise their mentees), as well as the general expectations of the mentee’s role within the company. They should also impart lessons learned and provide their perspectives on the business environment and workplace situation. Otherwise, their role is to challenge the student to succeed, rather than to simply provide answers: that is, they must teach the mentee how to think, not what to think.
Asking challenging and even provocative questions, sprinkled with advice, encourages personal initiative. This leads to increased engagement and empowerment—which leads, in turn, to greater productivity.
So instead of telling the mentee precisely how to do something, the mentor asks, “How do you think you should handle this?” The results may be surprising, and are often worth exploring—not just because they stretch the mentee’s capabilities and encourage independent thought—but also because they encourage personal accountability. Even when a mentee fails to rise to the challenge, the results are productive, since they can illustrate shortcomings in the mentee’s training and abilities. Constructive mentoring is one way an employee learns what they need to improve upon, and how he or she should go about doing so.
Bridging the Gaps
Good mentoring also builds connections between organizational levels, helping the mentees grow into their roles and providing opportunities for further growth while humanizing the mentors. This contributes to an esprit de corps that improves morale, and at least indirectly, productivity. Part of this strategy involves the mentor exploring the mentee’s frustrations and worries—and suggesting ideas to overcome them—without fixing them directly.
This requires collaborative communication in both directions. The mentor should make it clear that candid feedback is not only encouraged but required. In particular, the mentee must be willing to ask questions, especially when something they need to know is unclear, and must always stay self-aware, receptive, resilient, and willing to grow.
Ultimately, productive mentoring involves more than just showing a newbie the ropes. To be truly productive, it requires mentors help mentees become comfortable within the organization, by forging connections that secure their place within the organizational structure—while simultaneously making them uncomfortable by challenging them to develop their own approaches to specific situations and problems. Both aspects are necessary to encourage mentees to grow in such a way that they can achieve their maximum potential.
When pursued in a productive, challenging way, mentoring provides value to everyone involved.