Mentoring as a way to transfer learning, and accelerate empowerment
By: Marius Meyer and Jabulani Mabaso
Marius Meyer and Jabulani Mabaso facilitate mentoring programmes for the Institute of Organisation Development and Transformation of Technikon SA. They can be contacted on: and .
Numerous studies have concluded that mentoring relationships are a significant factor in succession planning, career development, skill development, as well as adding value to the implementation of equity plans.
South African companies are slowly, but surely becoming more committed to people development. Mentoring relationships are increasingly seen as a practical way to carry out this commitment.
Examining the definition of what is mentoring, best shows the strength of this development process.
Mentoring is best described in the following way:
# Mentoring is a process of forming a relationship between a more experienced, seasoned and wiser person (mentor) who helps a less experienced person (mentee or protégé who is not the mentor’s direct report) develop in some specified capacity.
# Mentoring is both value and career-oriented. Value-oriented in that a mentee’s character and values are developed, and career-oriented because the mentee is taught the skills and given information that is relevant to his/her career.
In the remainder of this article we clarify the notion of mentoring, and encourage its use in organisations. We identify the barriers to mentoring, clarify the roles of both mentors and mentees, and suggest an implementation process for a mentoring programme.
2. Mentoring in the context of employment equity and skills development
Mentoring is particularly useful within the context of the Employment Equity and Skills Development legislation. Due to the inequality of the South African managerial profile, the reality is that the majority of managers are white and the majority of employees are black. In order to change this profile, transfer of skills are essential and this is exactly where mentoring can play an important role. In fact, without effective mentoring most companies will struggle to achieve their employment equity targets.
The value of mentoring lies in the fact that mentoring is the quickest way to transfer skills and thereby accelerating empowerment in the workplace. No amount of formal training and informal courses can achieve what mentoring can do. With mentoring a member of a designated group targeted for a higher-level position can work with a mentor to acquire the skills needed to function at a more senior level.
A mentor’s role is twofold: firstly, to provide career development opportunities such as coaching, providing challenging assignments, sponsoring advancement, and fostering the protégé’s visibility; secondly they provide psychosocial support such as counselling, support and role modelling. Without a mentor, an individual will learn less, more slowly or not at all.
Mentoring is, however, not an all-or-nothing relationship, and neither is it static in nature. Some or all of the roles may be provided, and they change since the purpose of the relationship is to enable the mentee to acquire new knowledge, skills and standards of competence.
Mentoring also helps the organisation to achieve a broad spectrum of goals, from sharing business information to developing a line of succession to replacing top management. Such purpose should be aligned to the strategic equity and skill development goals of the organisation. The purpose of the programme could be aimed at removing barriers to development and advancement. This in turn will lead to more equitable people development practices, assists with career progression, leadership development, and fast tracking of high flyers (candidates who genuinely have the psychological capacity to progress very fast given a guided challenge is available to tackle).
3. Roles and functions of mentors
A mentor performs certain functions and roles as part of the mentoring process. A professional approach to these roles are very important, as the success of a mentoring programme often depends on whether the mentor applies these roles correctly.
Mentors should appraise behaviours of mentees and give the latter a chance to review their strengths and weaknesses by providing feedback and personal impressions that can be categorised as favourable or unfavourable behaviour. This is especially important for employment equity because doors must be opened for members of designated groups. Mentors should become sounding boards. They should provide a risk-free environment for the mentee to let out frustrations, share difficulties. They should be frank, honest and candid.
They should inspire the mentee to take action by saying, doing, or demonstrating something that can ignite the mentee’s initiative. They should motivate and stimulate the mentee to discuss impressions, ideas, visions and creative concepts that are inside or outside of their work context.
Mentors should connect the mentee with people in the organisation who can enhance learning and provide valuable information. Sometimes the mentor will realise that the mentee needs support and guidance from someone else – it may be a person in a different department or section or even another branch of the company. By learning from other people, the mentee not only acquires the knowledge and skills needed, he or she also gets the opportunity to learn about other areas of the organisation that will benefit him or her in the future.
A network or support structure is thus created by making the mentee visible by including him/her in important discussions and by introducing him/her to important people in the organisation who can also contribute to the professional development of the mentee.
Mentors should create opportunities for specific learning experiences by championing the ideas and interests of the mentee so that the latter gains visibility and exposure. It may happen that certain staff members give problems to the mentee, or treat him or her badly. Remember, the old guard does not always support candidates for fast tracking, so resistance may be encountered. It may then be necessary for the mentor to act as an advocate to defend the mentee in certain situations. A mentor should therefore act as a protector, shielding the mentee from unwarranted criticism and protect him or her against hostile individuals within the organisation.
As an advisor the mentor communicates the informal and formal realities of progression in the organisation, recommends appropriate strategies for career direction and advancement, reviews the mentee’s development plan on a regular basis and helps the mentee to identify obstacles to career progression and to take appropriate action
# Information source
A mentee often views the mentor as a source of information. This is an important role of the mentor, although the mentor should not always give all the information to mentees. Sometimes the learning experience will be more valuable when the mentee learns to find information on his/her own.
A good mentor is always a good listener. Sound listening skills are therefore crucial for mentors. Mentors have to listen to the mentees to find out how the mentee experiences the programme and to obtain feedback on the progress made. The mentor must also listen to the problems and concerns of mentees.
# Emotional supporter
Any relationship involves emotions. The mentoring relationship is no different. The role of the mentor is to maintain mutual feeling of respect, admiration, trust, appreciation and gratitude, to share personal values and other aspects of the relationship, and they should encourage and support mentees during difficult or stressful times.
# Professional and personal developer
The aim of a mentoring programme is the personal and professional development of a person to meet the needs of both the mentee and the mentor. As part of professional development the mentor points out the mentee’s strengths, abilities, talents, and promote his/her feeling of competence and self-esteem, encourages and coaches the mentee and collaborate with mentees on workplace projects for professional development.
# Role model
Mentors must realise the important role they have as role models for mentees. The latter will be more observant of the mentor’s behaviour than other staff members. There is therefore pressure on the mentor to act as a role model. The important lesson is to model what you expect.
How can the mentor best serve as a positive role model? By starting from within, and reflecting on one's own experience with employees and then demonstrating to the mentees the cherished values and expected actions. Values such as respect are demonstrated through respectful behaviour with others. Co-operation is shown through acts of compromise and resolution. Responsibility is shown through timely completion of personal and professional commitments.
A mentor is also a coach. As a coach the mentor helps to clarify performance goals and development needs, teaches managerial and technical skills, suggests specific behaviour in which the mentee needs improvement. The mentor also clarifies and communicates organisational goals and objectives
4. Roles of the mentee
Many employment equity programmes fail when there is undue emphasis on the mentor, while the responsibilities and roles of the mentees are neglected. Mentoring is not about entitlement; it is about real workplace empowerment and skills development. The following roles of mentees are therefore of paramount importance to the success of a mentoring programme:
The mentee needs to be willing to learn from the mentor or role model. He or she must be an active learner and believe in the concept of lifelong learning. Mentees should realise that the success of the programme will to a large extent depend on the quality of their learning.
Mentees need to be creative in suggesting other development areas to the manager or mentor. Here it is important to focus on the responsibility of the mentee for self-development. Whilst the mentor plays a developmental role in his or her relationship with the mentee, the latter is also responsible for his or own self-development.
The mentee must be a proactive and competent communicator. Mentees must be able to say what they think to communicate their ideas, problems and concerns with the mentor. Well-developed communication skills are therefore of utmost importance for mentees. In addition, mentees should use the knowledge and skills of the mentor to improve their communication skills.
Listening skills are very important for mentees. They must listen very well to the mentors in order to implement the action plans decided upon with the mentor. It is often a good idea to make notes of key issues mentioned by the mentor to enhance the listening process.
Mentees are implementers. This means that the relationship between the mentor and mentee is not merely based on interaction and communication. The real yardstick for the success of the mentoring programme is whether the mentee is implementing the action plans decided with the mentor. Implementation refers to specific action plans and activities that have taken place.
5. Barriers to mentoring
In most organisations the implementation of mentoring is, much like employment equity and skills development, not a natural process. Barriers within the business such as the current systems, methods and processes may impede the implementation of professional mentoring practices and principles.
Few mentors will deny the fact that they have to manage change in order to be an effective mentor. However, very few managers in South Africa have the necessary knowledge and skills to implement change effectively. It is, therefore, not surprising that many employment equity programmes fail. It does not matter how potentially successful a new product, process, system or procedure is, if the overall management of the change intervention is not effectively managed, the desired results of the mentoring programme will not be achieved.
From the above it is evident that managerial incompetence is often the main reason why mentoring interventions fail. In fact, if one compiles a list of the reasons for mentoring programme failures, it is abundantly clear that the majority of these issues relate to ineffective management. The reasons why mentoring fails are as follows.
# A lack of commitment towards mentoring
Mentoring fails when there is a lack of management vision and commitment towards mentoring, which is usually characterised by ineffective leadership or lip service to mentoring. These organisations claim that "our people are our greatest asset" but they do not commit the necessary resources to make mentoring work.
Sometimes management expects mentors to implement mentoring practices, but they do not provide the necessary resources for them to do so. How many companies claim that they do not get enough qualified employees from designated groups? Perhaps a more pertinent question is to ask them what they have done to develop their own staff.
A second scenario is when management is committed to mentoring, but the mentors themselves are not committed. This happens when the mentors do not have the objectives of the mentoring programme at heart, or when they become involved in the mentoring process for their own personal objectives, such as paying lip service to diversity and transformation in order to protect their jobs.
A third problem presents itself when the mentees themselves do not show commitment towards the mentoring programme. This happens when there is a lack of employee buy-in the mentoring programme due to a low level of trust in mentors and the management of the organisation.
Some mentees may view mentoring as a right, while they fail to see their responsibility to make mentoring work. They typically expect it from the mentor to do almost everything for them, and when they do not perform they will blame the mentor or the organisation for their under-performance.
# A lack of planning of the mentoring process
An organisation often have very good intentions with their mentoring programmes, but due to a lack of planning the process is not implemented very effectively.
Sometimes there is unclear responsibility when managers and employees are not sure of their particular responsibilities in implementing mentoring. There is also a lack of understanding of the scope, content, and process of the mentoring intervention. This can result in implementing the mentoring system too slowly, or too quickly while new systems are not yet in place. The result of this is an ineffective system with many errors and shortcomings.
# A lack of employee involvement and consultation
When potential mentees are not actively involved in planning and implementing mentoring, the programme will also fail, especially when management unilaterally drives the programme. Yes, it may indeed by necessary for the employment equity committee to drive the programme, but if the people who implement the mentoring system are not involved in the refinement and improvement of the programme, it will not work.
# Ineffective communication
Communication is the most important skill to establish and maintain a mentoring relationship. Moreover, communication is essential in making a mentoring system work. A well-developed mentoring strategy will require communication throughout the whole organisation. A lack of communication, information sharing and feedback about the mentoring strategy is the main reason why mentoring programmes fail.
# Poor consultant relationships
The improper selection of consultants or an over-reliance on consultants makes it difficult to implement mentoring programmes effectively. While consultants often facilitate effective mentoring programmes, the real implementation will be done by the members of the organisation themselves. Consultants often omit to customise mentoring programmes to the needs of clients. In addition, they fail to appreciate the organisation culture and unique environment of their clients. They tend to present a standardised programme without providing any support or follow-up interventions to assist the organisation with the implementation process
# Insufficient training
A lack of training, or insufficient training and other support structures retards the implementation of mentoring interventions. To train mentors alone is not enough. All people responsible for mentoring, e.g., mentoring co-ordinators, human resource managers, the mentors themselves, and indeed the mentees must be trained to make the mentoring process work effectively.
# Resistance to change
Some major companies in South Africa are implementing mentoring programmes as part of their employment equity and affirmative action plans. For this reason, people who feel threatened by employment equity tend to resist mentoring programmes. Mentoring also requires a change in the style of management to a more open, supportive, flexible and approachable leadership style.
Many managers are not used to an open style of management, and will therefore resist an empowerment programme such as mentoring. These managers feel that they are giving away too much power if they have to implement mentoring. They tend to keep their knowledge to themselves. In addition, many white (male) managers feel that if they act as mentors for black mentees, these mentees will "take over their jobs".
# A lack of monitoring
Another problem is a lack of monitoring, evaluation and alignment of the mentoring strategy during all phases of the change intervention. Continuous evaluation is needed to see if the mentoring relationships are managed effectively.
Assessment should be continuous and must cover areas such as the quality of the mentoring programme and the performance of the mentors as well as the mentees. In both the Skills Development Act and Employment Equity Act the issue of monitoring has been clearly identified.
# Diversity related problems
Women and black people normally find fewer individuals like themselves in the upper ranks of the organisation. In intercultural and relationships there may also be inadvertent stereotyping on the part of the mentee or mentor. There may be assumptions that the one is "too different" from the other to develop a relationship.
In cross-gender relationships there are also stereotypical roles that are assumed and may cause the parties to relate to each other from traditional and cultural perspectives. For example, if a male mentee has a problem with the mentor simply because the mentor is female.
These stereotypes greatly reduce the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship and undermine the confidence of the mentee. In cross-gender relationships the role-modelling function may prove unsatisfactory because men and women have different professional styles. Men may find it difficult to empathise or identify with the challenges that are unique to women or those experiences that men have never faced.
Another important issue is cross-racial mentoring relationships. The alienation of black people from participation in mainstream society and its institutions has created certain stereotypes that present serious challenges for interracial mentoring relationships. There may be assumptions that result from negative stereotyping which causes beliefs such as that black people are not able to interact effectively with people at the upper echelons of the organisation.
A white manager or mentor might assume therefore that the cultural gap is insurmountable by citing certain difference with potential black mentees such as speech, mannerism, and style of dress. Other obstacles will include the tendency of both black and white people to rarely socialise outside the workplace.
These problems will make role modelling more difficult on the part of the mentor. The black mentee might also be "accused" by his/her fellow black colleagues of becoming "white" if they model the behaviour of their white mentor. Employment equity and diversity is therefore an important reality to consider as part of mentoring programmes.
# Poor selection of mentors
Many companies select the wrong mentors based on the misconception that the most experienced staff member will be the best mentor. A technical expert in his field may be the best specialist in the country in his area, but that does not mean that he/she will be a good mentor.
A mentor is someone with exceptional people and relationship skills, as well as a good insight into the organisation’s strategy, culture, products/services and markets. They are typically strong supporters of employment equity and skills development. Mentoring programmes also fail when certain people are selected as mentors and "forced" to play their mentoring roles. Mentors who volunteer their services are always better mentors because their commitment to the process is much higher.
# Fragmented mentoring programmes
A fragmented mentoring programme is one that is not integrated with other human resource development programmes in the organisation. The programme is a separate programme that was initiated by a particular manager who could see the benefits of mentoring. These managers struggle to get the programme implemented at all levels, and the programme is seen as a "nice to have" programme. There is very little record keeping about the programme. There is no integration of the mentoring programme with career management, succession planning, training and development, accelerated development and fast tracking, employment equity, skills development, leadership development, etc.
6. Successful mentoring programmes
Reviewing the above problems relating to mentoring programmes, it is evident that mentoring is not something that happens automatically. This is especially true in organisations where the business culture does not support employment equity and empowerment, as mentoring is in essence an empowerment intervention. The core characteristics of successful mentoring programmes are as follows:
# Obtain commitment based on sound business principles
Clearly identify the need for the mentoring programme, in other words what need is there for mentoring. Base the programme on solid business reasons, e.g. to speed up development of future leaders, or to share organisational knowledge. The benefits of the programme should therefore be highlighted. Part of this process is to get buy-in from senior management. Their support is necessary, not only because funding comes from there but also that you demonstrate to all employees that management stands behind the programme and takes an interest in the career development of its people. Obtain visible support and involvement from top management.
Furthermore, it is imperative to keep line managers in the loop. It is advisable to develop a triangular relationship if the mentor is not the immediate manager. Managers should be confident that the programme would not undermine their ability to oversee their staff. The key here is communicating, sharing responsibility and recognising benefits for all three parties. Therefore it will be advisable to make sure that the mentee shares his/her career development plans with his/her manager before the initial meeting with the mentor. Sometimes you can let the mentee invite the manager to some scheduled meetings with the mentor.
# Correct identification of mentors
Determine who will participate as mentors. Managers should be strongly encouraged to participate as mentors and then be evaluated on their success in their roles.
Commitment to growth of other persons, the ability to listen, trustworthiness and objectivity are all good qualities to look for in mentors. Some companies advertise their mentorship programmes in their newsletters and invite potential mentors to volunteer their services.
It is essential to inform staff of the benefits for them if they become mentors. These mentors should be screened for suitability. For example, a person who has a track record for being a very autocratic manager will not be a good mentor, or if this person is known for racist or sexist behaviour. Screen mentors regarding their level of interest and commitment to invest the time and energy required for a successful mentoring relationship.
# Correct identification of mentees
Sometimes companies set unrealistic goals for staff members. Not all employees have the ability to become supervisors, and not all managers have the ability to become directors of the company. As far as employment equity is concerned, it is essential to ensure that the right mentees are identified for fast tracking. They must not only be competent in their technical field of expertise (e.g. finance, operations etc.), they must have potential in terms of communication, and management skills to be promoted to higher levels in the organisation. They also need a very high level of commitment and internal locus of control. Also screen mentees regarding their level of interest, and commitment to invest the time and energy required for a successful mentoring relationship.
# Correct matching of mentors and mentees
Appropriately matching participants is of the utmost importance. Sometimes it is advisable that mentors should have experience in the speciality area of interest to their mentees. Also be aware of potential personality clashes. A mentee who has a very organised way of doing things will probably be frustrated if he or she has to work with a mentor who is disorganised. There must be a high probability that the mentor and mentee will work well together and that the relationship will be productive to ensure the success of the programme. Encourage voluntary participation and self-initiated pairing between employees.
# Train all role-players
All role-players must be trained to understand the dynamics of the relationship, and the roles and responsibilities of all parties concerned. All people responsible for mentoring, e.g., management, mentoring co-ordinators, human resource managers, the mentors themselves, and indeed the mentees must be trained to make the mentoring process work effectively.
# An integrated process
An integrated system of mentoring means that a mentoring programme does not stand on its own, but is sufficiently integrated into other business functions and systems such as human resource planning, career management, succession planning, training and development, accelerated development, performance management, employment equity, organisation development, transformation and leadership development.
If mentoring is well integrated with other human resource and organisation systems as indicated above, then the chances are greater that mentoring will be a success. It could also include a recognition system for both parties. Effective support systems such as manager/supervisor support and mentoring co-ordinators are also required. Also ensure that the program supports any existing informal mentoring relationships. Start the program gradually with a small number and in areas with the highest level of anticipated participation and support.
# Openness to employment equity and diversity
Openness to diversity is an important characteristic of successful mentoring programmes. This means that the mentor must know how his or her own background impacts on the mentor-mentee relationship. In addition, he or she must be sensitive towards the background of the mentee.
In cross racial, and gender mentoring relationships, mentors must be careful not to suggest suppression of the mentees’ cultural heritages. The participants must confront attitudes and behaviours that work to the disadvantage of either party. The mentor and mentee must both adopt more self-awareness and pro-active behaviour. Each party must make use of the opportunity to engage with those who are different from them in order to fully discover themselves.
7. Implementing a mentorship process
Like al other organisation development interventions, mentoring must also be implemented in a carefully planned and professional approach in terms of both the process and content of the intervention.
The major steps in initiating and managing a mentoring programme are as follows:
1. Create mentoring implementation structures.
2. Train mentoring co-ordinators.
3. Identify mentors/mentees.
4. Train mentors/mentees.
5. Match mentors/mentees.
6. Set relationship goals and plan for learning.
7. Implement, and monitor the process.
8. Evaluate, and fine-tune the process.
The fact that mentoring is critical in the development and upward mobility of employees from designated groups means that business must accord the importance to the process of mentoring to achieve its transformation goals.
The mentoring relationship is clearly an interaction between mentor and mentee while the mentoring process focuses on the steps that must be implemented to make the overall mentoring process work.
The mentor and mentee bring specific strengths to the learning situation. The approach of the mentee could be different from that of the mentor. What is important to remember is that the outcome of the learning is the behaviour demonstrated by the mentee.
Mentoring could also be part of a larger initiative to support employment equity and skills development in an organisation. Both the mentoring relationship, and the overall mentoring process must be managed well to ensure effective transfer of knowledge, skills and experience mentoring in South African organisations and thus make the country competitive. When mentoring is managed well and fully integrated in a company’s people development processes, it becomes a powerful tool to accelerate learning and workplace empowerment.