Mentorship definitions, benefits and best practices

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A strong mentorship program is critical to the success of any organization, especially in challenging times.
Research shows that mentorship programs contribute directly to effective knowledge, talent and culture strategies, with a return on investment that exceeded 1,000% in one U.S. study.
“Mentoring increases knowledge sharing, and promotes feelings of connectedness and a positive culture,” explains Christy Pettit, a mentorship expert and Pollinate co-founder and CEO. “It develops careers and future leaders, and enhances decision-making and critical thinking skills. It ensures people have the contacts, inspiration, knowledge and know-how to meet their goals.”

What is mentorship?

Mentorship means different things to different people.
At Pollinate, we define mentorship as a learning system that enables knowledge and advice to flow freely from those who have it to those who need it. Mentorship is also a social support system that connects people to an organization and across an organization to retain talent, support career and leadership skills development, and create a strong, healthy culture, including diversity initiatives.

Why mentorship is important

A good mentoring program builds strong relationships within organizations and across broader ecosystems.
Mentoring is an essential component of any knowledge management strategy for the following reasons:

  • it enables the sharing of tacit (generally unstated) and explicit information that saves organizations money and retains clients
  • it retains the organizational knowledge and expertise employees have amassed over many years
  • it fosters opportunities to create new information and increase innovation.

Mentoring strengthens a talent development and retention strategy by giving organizations additional tools to attract, develop, retain, and maximize the productivity and capacity of people. It also connects people to their fields of expertise, and strengthens subject matter networks.
Mentorship programs build community and improve relationships between different employee populations. They open channels of communication that increase employees’ affinity to the organization and engagement with their work. Mentoring helps new employees quickly understand key cultural requirements and creates cultural alignment across the organization.
A powerful part of the mentoring process is learning with – and from – someone with a different life story than yours.
Mentoring also supports multi-generational workforce and diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. In the Covid era, with loneliness and mental health issues on the rise, a mentoring program can serve as an important channel for human connection and social support.
“Mentoring provides a community-based approach to talk to others – one on one or in groups – to learn from those who have travelled that path before you,” says Pettit. “It’s important to know that what you’re experiencing is normal, that others have had similar experiences, and there are ways to overcome challenges to reach your goals.”

The benefits of mentoring

Not surprisingly, companies who adopt mentorship programs and a mentorship culture “do better.” Robust mentoring programs deliver the following benefits:

  • Fewer people leave
  • Engagement is higher
  • People have better career outcomes
  • Inclusion programs are more effective

Research from a Sun Microsystems study on the value of mentoring, cited by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, found:

  • 25% of employees who enrolled in a mentoring program had a salary-grade change, compared to only 5% of workers who did not participate
  • Mentees were promoted five times more often than those not in a mentoring program (and mentors were promoted six times more often!)
  • Retention rates were higher for both mentees (79% more) and mentors (69% more) than for employees who did not participate in a mentoring program

The Sun Microsystems study estimated a return on investment of more than 1,000%. Another study estimated that when learning a skill, one-to-one mentoring increased the speed of learning by about 1000x.
A Harvard Business Review article states that CEOs participating in formal mentoring arrangements reported the following:

  • 84% said mentors had helped them avoid costly mistakes
  • 84% became proficient in their roles faster
  • 71% said company performance improved
  • 69% were making better decisions

Types of mentoring

While a traditional definition of mentoring typically refers to a more experienced person supporting someone less experienced through one-to-one mentorship, there are many other styles of mentoring that suit different purposes. Each type of mentoring has benefits depending on the goals of the mentorship program.
Below we define the different types of mentoring to help you choose the right approach for your organization.

One-to-one mentoring

One-to-one mentoring is what we think of as traditional mentoring, involving a mentor and mentee that are matched based on their personalities, program goals and other factors. (At Pollinate we use Cross-Pollinate AI™ mentor matching technology, which includes our Knowledge Transfer Index psychometric assessment, for ideal matches, quick traction and results.) In one-to-one mentoring, mentors share their knowledge, experiences and advice to help mentees grow professionally and personally to reach specific goals.

Reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring is another type of mentoring arrangement that involves a more junior person mentoring a more senior person on a specific topic.
Someone who is younger may have less overall experience, but they also have different experiences to contribute and share.
In Harvard Business Review, Jennifer Jordan and Michael Sorell explain how reverse mentoring can help “senior executives think about strategic issues, leadership, and the mindset with which they approach their work.”

Group mentoring

Group mentoring involves a small group or cohort of mentees learning from a mentor. This approach is ideal for a team mentoring approach.

Peer mentoring

Peer mentoring typically involves matching people who are at a similar career and/or life stage. It enables an individual with deeper experience on a particular topic to share their knowledge and lived experience with their mentee counterpart. In this way peer mentoring provides important social support in addition to knowledge transfer. Peer mentoring can be conducted using a one-to-one mentorship model or a group mentorship arrangement.

Mentoring circles

Mentoring circles are another type of group mentoring that usually involve a small group of mentees meeting with a mentor on topics that support learning and development within an organization.
It’s also important to note that mentoring is not limited to in-person interactions: All types of mentoring can be effective when conducted virtually. See our best practices for virtual mentoring.

Mentorship vs coaching

Mentoring and coaching both have advantages as learning strategies; however, they differ in that:
A coach is typically more narrowly focused on specific performance issues and outcomes while a mentor is focused on the mentee’s overall professional growth.
A coach typically sets and drives the agenda and tracks progress. A mentor on the other hand:

  • Allows the mentee to drive the agenda
  • Is interested in context, options and exploring consequences
  • Gives advice and perspective, may share own experiences
  • Makes connections and provides challenges

Mentorship vs sponsorship

Mentoring relationships may evolve over time to include sponsorship.
Sponsorship programs go one extra step beyond traditional mentoring in that they involve the mentor “sponsoring” the mentee on their next career step or goal.
Sponsorship is possible when a pair has built trust and a mentee has demonstrated a commitment and ability to apply learning. At that point a mentor may choose to:

  • Provide a challenge assignment
  • Advocate for the mentee to take on more in their current role
  • Sponsor the mentee’s candidacy for advanced opportunities and roles

Do you need a coach, mentor or sponsor?

Mentorship is organizational “glue”

At Pollinate, we believe mentorship is the glue that holds an organization together while cross-pollinating knowledge and new skills across silos and management levels.
For any mentorship program where you are expending the precious time of people toward new growth and capacity to contribute, strategic intentions are key. The best mentoring experiences are experiences where:

    • Effective recruitment practices attract participants ready to engage.
    • Mentors and mentees are optimally matched based on personality and program goals.
    • The mentee has clear goals that the mentor has agreed to support.
    • Pairs are supported with educational materials on best practices for sharing through mentorship.
    • Just like any mentorship program and partnership, pulse checks to ensure the interactions are going as planned ensure that pairs who have a false start are re-booted or re-matched.

Learn more about Pollinate Mentorship Programs

Get Pollinate’s Best Practices Guidebook


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