A friend in need

Many organisations are wising up to the benefits that can be derived from a properly constructed mentoring programme in developing and growing staff. And the benefits are not all for the employee: there is also a great deal to be gained for the mentor and, ultimately, for the business.

First of all, mentoring is not the same as coaching. The main difference is that the mentoring relationship is often a long-term one, while coaching is more commonly applied to develop specific skills and performance, and in many cases the coach is an external professional.

The mentee should use the mentor as a sounding board to gain valuable insights from an impartial perspective into any issue they are contending with at work. Sometimes, it is helpful for a mentee just to be able to talk about something in confidence with someone more experienced in the organisation other than their immediate line manager.

Some mentors may have a particular skill that the employer feels a less experienced employee would benefit from being exposed to. So, for example, if there is a particularly gifted technical lawyer who has had limited involvement in business development, then allocating that lawyer to a mentor with exceptional rainmaking skills is likely to accelerate their progress.

The ideal mentor is therefore likely to be a more experienced person within the organisation who is able to pass on their knowledge and experience. They must be able to provide guidance and support to someone who is less experienced or new to a particular role.

Usually it is essential that the mentor works in a different area of the business from the mentee to ensure that there is no conflict between the role of a supervisor and the role of a mentor. However, as popularised in fiction and films, the best mentor-mentee relationships are hard to quantify and often simply grow organically or accidentally.

An entirely top-down approach to introducing mentoring can go against the very spirit of the relationship, and finding a happy medium between informality and formality is key. The allocation of a suitable mentor is therefore often not easy. To make the most out of mentoring it is imperative that the mentor and mentee feel they can work with one another and are able to build a relationship based on trust. Where possible, the mentee should have a say in the decision of who is allocated as their mentor.

This, of course, will not always work, particularly where new employees are concerned, who will naturally lack sufficient knowledge of the people in the organisation to be able to make an informed choice about their mentor.

But one approach we have found to be successful is to match trainee solicitors at the firm as far as possible to a mentor who attended the same university as the trainee, so they have something in common straightaway.

It is also important that a firm should not over-prescribe when, where and how the mentor and mentee should meet. There also needs to be some coordination to ensure that the two parties do meet from time to time, otherwise there is a danger that due to high workloads the relationship fizzles out. For our trainee solicitors, we ensure they meet with their mentor during the first week they join us and then we encourage contact when they next make a seat move.

But there is no right or wrong way to deal with this, and as part of the strategy for encouraging individuals to have responsibility for their own development it may be better for the responsibility to rest with the mentee to initiate discussions. Ideally, once a functioning mentor-mentee relationship is up and running, however, neither party would have to be reminded to meet up.

The long-term nature of the mentoring relationship is therefore a crucial one. It may be expected that during the early part of the relationship there is a greater amount of contact between mentor and mentee and that as the mentee acquires greater knowledge and skills the amount of contact can expect to reduce.

A measure of the success of such a relationship can be assessed if, after a number of years, a mentee still feels comfortable picking up the phone to the mentor to ask their guidance on a particular issue, even if that mentee has been with the organisation a number of years and indeed has climbed the ranks themselves.

We often hear stories of trainees remaining close to their mentor from another part of the practice years after they have qualified as an associate and in some cases the mentee has gone on to become a fellow partner.

A great deal of time can be expended on making the mentoring relationship work, so what is in it for the business? First, it is an incredibly effective way of sharing knowledge and skills and tapping into the minds of others who either have more experience or specific skills that are important to pass on to other employees in the business.

Second, an organisation that has such a programme sends a very positive message to potential recruits on the type of organisation they will be joining, while they are likely to stay with that business longer if they feel they are learning and developing and have a connection with a mentor who they get on well with.

Finally, it also helps the mentor to stay in touch with other parts of the business and with the issues that often younger mentees are facing in the workplace, as well as having the satisfaction that comes with seeing a mentee develop and progress their career.

Businesses are constantly changing and evolving. How adaptable and well equipped an organisation is to deal with this change can depend on its approach to succession planning. If it takes it seriously it is likely that mentoring will feature somewhere in the armoury of developing talent.

Lakhbir Purewal is head of HR at Norton Rose‘s London office