Why You Should Have (and Be!) a Mentor

An age-old social structure gets a new boost in the new economy.

Employee engagement has stagnated over the past decade or so. According to a recent Gallup report on the State of the American Workplace, 51% of workers are “not engaged and have not been for a long while.” It seems simplistic to say, but being happy and engaged at work is a good thing. Unhappy workers look for a new situation. Turnover is expensive for companies. Enter mentorship, a tried-and-true method of reducing turnover and increasing employee engagement.

New Boss Not the Same as the Old Boss

Mentorship and support

Mentorship is not new, of course. It’s an offshoot of the most basic relationship at work, that of manager and employee. In today’s leaner company structures, however, bosses often don’t have time to develop their employees’ skills and nurture their career aspirations. And that’s where mentorship holds more value than ever. An oft-cited 2006 report on Sun Microsystems’ mentoring programs  found that “25% of employees in a test group who took part in the company’s mentoring program had a salary grade change, compared with 5% of employees in a control group who did not participate in the program.”

And, not only is mentorship good for the mentee, it’s also good for the mentor. That same 2006 Sun Microsystems study found that mentors were more likely to be promoted. Mentorship is good for business, as well. It costs approximately 20% of a worker’s salary to replace that position. In a key metric that shows the popularity of mentorship programs, the Association for Talent Development found that 71% of Fortune 500 companies have such programs in place.

Looking for Mentorship in All the Right Places

If your company has a mentorship program in place, now is the time to engage with it. If you are not so fortunate, you do have the opportunity to take control of the process and create your own mentorship relationships. Even with an established program, it’s important to take charge of the process. The mentee, not the mentor, should be the one in control. They should initiate conversations and set agendas, both as an indication of their initiative and to make it easier for the mentor to share their wisdom.

Nora Mitchell

When Nora Mitchell was completing the Certificate Program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, she paired with a teaching mentor to help her understand the flow and timing of a lesson plan when it actually interacts with students. Nora showed initiative and got the full benefit of her mentor’s experience. “I attended his class more than what was required to get more continuity in seeing what he did day-to-day. That helped a lot, too, because I got to to see his rhythm and how he worked with the students.”

Judy Ho, a recent graduate of the Certificate Program in Personal Financial Planning, has some great advice for people looking for mentors that she shared at a recent event. “Once you’ve decided on that path and you’re in the field, that’s when you start finding new mentors,” she says. “Try to have three levels: the first is someone who is starting off with you. And then another group that has peer mentors. And then the third is with situated professionals.”

What to Look for in a Mentorship Program or Relationship

Always remember that you have the power as the mentee and should be driving the relationship. That is not to say that you want to pester your mentor, but that you should be the one who sets the agenda and does the organizing work. To that end, here are four suggestions to ensure that your mentorship is rewarding.

  • Define Your Purpose
    Your first step is to outline what you want from this relationship. Do you want to learn to be better at your particular job? Are you looking to gain new skills? Perhaps you are looking at career development. Put down in writing what you expect to achieve, and that will make it easier for you and your mentor.
  • Determine Scope and Style
    You want to establish boundaries for your mentorship, not to be restrictive, but to set limits that make it easier to proceed throughout the program and to determine successful outcomes. Figure out how long you expect the relationship to last. Is this a yearlong effort? More? Less? Set up a schedule of meetings. Determine how many meetings will be face-to-face (if you are working with a local mentor). Decide whether email or messaging will be part of the process. The more you define the scope of the program, the more prepared you will be to carry out its terms.
  • Pick the Participants
    Decide who you want to include in the process. If this is a peer-based mentorship, decide on which of your cohort to include. If you are looking to gain additional skills, determine who has the resources that you would like to learn from and then figure out a way to contact and include them.
  • Create Success Metrics
    You have already defined your purpose. Now, it’s time to figure out how to determine whether you have achieved that purpose. Create a list of targets that you want to achieve through this mentorship: skills, contacts, familiarity with processes, even a new job. If you determine the boundaries of success, you are more likely to find a way to achieve them.

Now Is the Time to Start

Mentorship word cloud

If you haven’t been able to find appropriate mentors within your own company or industry, you can also consider a paid mentorship. There are online organizations that can connect you to interested professional mentors. These companies and resources can connect you to a network of professional in a variety of fields.

  • Chronus offers a software package to help you find mentorship.
  • SCORE is an organization that focuses on helping small business owners find the support they need to succeed.
  • LinkedIn recently launched a service to its members that aims to link potential mentees with experts in their field. When we logged on to the app recently, the service came up automatically. It's rolling out in new territories after starting in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Internet features extensive resources for finding mentorships. So, go online to find an organization that meets your needs. Whether you find advice near your cubicle or from the far-flung digital reach of the Internet, finding a mentoring relationship can make a big difference in your engagement—and career growth—at work.

Have advice of your own on working with a mentor? Let us know in the comments section below!