How mentoring programs can help businesses and people to grow

If you’re a SME, chances are you have growth on your mind. But, as all good business leaders and owners know, achieving growth isn’t just about clinching deals, developing the next big product or shaking hands at endless network events.

Growth is just as importantly derived from your people. When you have a happy, motivated and skilled team on deck, everything else pretty much looks after itself. And, when you consider that each and every one of your team members has their personal and professional development as their number one priority, it makes sense to invest time and energy into their training, development and support. 

And that’s where a mentor comes in.

What is a mentor?

At its simplest, a mentor is someone who has more business experience than you. They work with you as an advisor on an ongoing basis, providing insight, ideas and stimulus designed to improve your business knowledge and acumen. They help you plan, solve problems and grow your work skills, or work with you to overcome any blocks or barriers such as career, finance, personal and interpersonal issues. 

According to Justin Herald, Managing Director of Major Motivation and one of Australia’s most sought after speakers, a business mentor is a broad based advisor with a track record of personal success.

Says Herald, “A business mentor is there to assist you in all aspects of business and business growth based upon their success in those areas. They haven’t just “learnt it” they have “done it.”

What are the benefits of having a mentor?

Kylie Paatsch, National Leader of the Development Squad at Peopleworks (the HR arm of the Flight Centre Travel Group), says that one of the main benefits of a mentoring program is the ongoing development and support provided to people.

“One of our key philosophies at Flight Centre is ‘Brightness of Future’, and that’s all about providing an exciting and challenging career path for committed people. Our mentor programs are a key part of how we live up to that principle,” says Paatsch.

“We understand that it takes time for people to learn the craft, and a mentor really helps them along that journey.”

For SMEs, getting HR right is essential. It can often be overlooked for the more immediate issues such as client deadlines, but ignoring it can end up costing you more in the long run. When implemented correctly, a mentoring program can have a positive impact on your bottom line; it can give you a competitive edge; and it can help to define a positive company culture. Other benefits include:  

  • Measurable and tangible training
  • Improved progression planning
  • Greater productivity, motivation and efficiency
  • Longer employee tenure
  • Enhanced company communication
  • Breakdown of intergenerational barriers

Anne O’Riordan, Senior Managing Director, Life Sciences at Accenture Hong Kong says that mentoring is all about creating success.

Says O’Riordan, “In the right supportive environment, you can really help people to be hugely successful. Mentoring is essential to everyone’s success. I believe there should be a formal mentoring program for all employees. Informal mentoring really helps too”.

A fast paced marketplace means mentors are more valuable than ever

Richard Daniel Curtis, CEO of The Mentoring School and Founder of the International Mentor Network, believes that the wild fluctuations seen in business today have increased the importance of mentors.

“Workplaces are wildly different than they were even 10 or 20 years ago, companies are having to change and respond to the pressures of turbulent markets. This means that now, more than ever, developing the skills of the workforce is a vital aspect of making sure the company is excelling,” says Curtis.

Driven by Diversity

Diversity in the workforce is an ongoing trend, and specialised mentoring with a focus on diversity has been proven to be effective. Research from McKinsey & Company has revealed workplaces that are gender and ethnically diverse are respectively 15% and 35% more likely to achieve financial returns above average.

How can mentors help a SME to grow?

The challenges a SME faces in its formative years and subsequent growth phase can be substantial. With only a small team there is more pressure and expectations put on staff, particularly the management. Mentoring helps to share this load.

Many business owners and managers are experts in their particular field, but they’re not always experts in growing and managing a business. Having a mentor can bring the commercial savvy, unblinkered vision and unbiased opinions that you need to grow, without resorting to unreliable online gurus touting their wares on Google.

Says Curtis, “Mentoring from an experienced business mentor gives the supports and guidance that leaders in SMEs often require. I know myself from my early business experiences, the impact that mentoring had on the growth of my organisation.”

Company culture

According to Paatsch, mentoring is an important aspect of building and maintaining company culture.

Says Paatsch, “We have a unique culture at the Flight Centre Travel Group, stemming from our 3 core values of  egalitarianism, irreverence and ownership. Everyone has the same rights and privileges, we empower people to be their best, and to bring their best.”

“In our business, we generally grow organically. Our COO, Mel Waters-Ryan started out as a consultant and worked her way up ranks for example. By identifying talent at the grass roots we can develop leaders who know the business and keep the culture alive,” says Paatsch.

Staff retention

Retention of quality staff and building a future leadership pool are other key outcomes that a mentor or mentoring program can be expected to deliver.

According to a recent 2018 report by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), average staff turnover is reported at around 18%, up from 16% in 2015 and 15% in 2012. That’s a steady increase over time, but interestingly in this era of flat wages growth, the reasons given for leaving a job aren’t all about money.

As documented by AHRI, the most commonly cited reason that employees give as a reason for leaving is lack of career progression opportunities. Another strong cause of worker movement appears to be a lack of learning and development opportunities, up 15%since the 2015 survey.

What kinds of mentoring is available?

There are a number of ways mentoring can be structured and delivered. What works for you will depend on your organisation, its size, configuration and specific business needs. The predominant types of mentoring on offer are:

  • Internal or Company mentoring - an internal scheme is set up and administered in order to tackle a particular issue or to develop that workforce as a whole.
  • External mentoring - an external organisation is contracted to provide mentoring services for the employees of the company.
  • Business mentors - specially trained and experienced business people who work with senior staff in an organisation, large or small, to support them with developing the business and also developing themselves as individuals. 
  • Reverse mentoring - a junior employee, such as a graduate or apprentice, is trained to mentor senior staff in the organisation in order to help the senior mentee and the organisation develop fresh insights

Internal Company Mentor Programs

A company mentor program is an internal scheme where the company trains various staff to support, guide and advise other employees.

As the Mentoring School CEO Curtis describes it: “There are two sides of company mentoring: the first is technical mentoring, where the mentor focuses on developing someone’s work skills; the second is pastoral mentoring, where the mentor focuses on whatever blocks or barriers the mentee is facing, whether they be job, relationship, finance, interpersonal or another issue.”

Mentoring programs can encourage a learning culture throughout the organisation, and foster an environment where employees are actively sharing knowledge.

High Potential Mentoring

Specifically designed to aid retention of high potentials, this is all about keeping those rising stars you’ve got working for you on your books. It shows them that you’re committed to them, provides a clear path of progression and gives them the attention and guidance they need to keep them from looking elsewhere.

Mentoring Circles

As the name suggests, mentoring circles involve a number of people who work in a group (a circle) to discuss a topic of interest. Participants can be drawn from various levels of a business, and due to their group structure, mentoring circles are effective at encouraging accelerated learning opportunities.

Mentoring circles can bring together people who share learning interests, help to build networks, provide an avenue for feedback and accountability, and grow skills. This form of mentoring has enjoyed a recent resurgence thanks in part to  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In movement.

Cross Company Mentoring

Most SMEs simply don’t have the budget or number of staff to justify putting an internal mentoring program in place. Cross company mentoring is an innovative solution that combines the individual assets and resources of SMEs and brings them together in a network of support, often in an online environment such as Mentorloop.  One of distinct advantages of cross company mentoring is working with businesses who don’t have an agenda and can be objective in their thinking. 

External Mentoring

External mentors are employed from outside of your business, and are usually valued most for their objective opinions. Getting a different perspective from someone who isn’t worried about stepping on anyone’s toes, getting caught up in internal politics or jeopardising their career goals is top of the list of benefits of an external mentor. They are unconstrained when it comes to asking the tricky questions and have a unique perspective from which to view your business.

6 Steps To Starting A Company Mentoring Program

Interested in setting up your own company mentor program? Kylie Paatsch of the Flight Centre Travel Group says there are six key steps to consider when getting started:

  1. Decide what your objectives are. For example, your objectives might be to develop product knowledge or skills, or to identify and nurture talent and future leaders.
  2. Define your audience, and build programs appropriate to their needs and your goals. The Flight Centre Travel Group has three 3 mentoring programs -  ‘Novice’, ‘Mastery’ and ‘Leadership’ – each designed to provide different outcomes. 
  3. Identify your ideal mentor type and work out your hiring criteria. Your ideal mentor might be someone who has performed the role previously, or alternatively someone with a different skill set and fresh perspective.
  4. Put out an Expressions of Interest, then interview candidates. Look for ‘know how’ (do they know how to mentor, ‘can do’ (do they have the ability), and ‘want to’ (motivation to complete the task).
  5. Once selected, run an induction for the mentors. This should include an overview of what to expect; it should provide development pathways; and it should introduce tips and tricks for mentors to adopt and implement.
  6. Measure – run reporting on your program, and measure results against your KPIs. Hold accountability for the program’s performance and make any changes necessary.

How do I find a business mentor?

Finding the right mentor can take time, but it’s worth the effort. Start by researching your industry. Who have you always admired? Who are the leaders who are shaping the industry? To find them, you can look to the trade press, check out industry events and social media.

Universities often offer programs for alumni, so if you’ve studied in the past, this could also be an avenue worth exploring.

There are many larger private firms who can help you establish a company mentor program. A quick Google search will uncover many of them, including McCarthy Mentoring and The Art Of Mentoring. The Australian Government lists a wide range of possible sources on its Mentoring for Business page.

Industry groups are another logical source. Again, the Australian Government provides links to possible sources on their Expertise and Advice page.  Mentoring Australia also has an exhaustive list of links on their website.

Make sure you always check a mentor’s experience and credentials – there are people out there advertising their services who are unqualified just looking to make a quick buck. 

Choosing the right business mentor for you

How do you identify the right mentor and ensure there is a real connection between the two parties? It usually starts with an informal meeting to gauge any immediate connections, and then develops into an ongoing sequence of interactions that ideally build trust. 

Herald says that it may seem like common sense, but choosing a mentor is rarely a “one size fits all” type of solution.

Says Herald, “For me, I go with the “no structured approach”. I don’t have set topics that I discuss with my clients each week. We discuss what is urgent for the client, then we get into areas of growth or any other area that needs attention. This then attracts a certain type of client to me. I don’t tend to have any extremely detailed and rigid types of clients as that is not the way I personally run my own businesses.”

Herald adds that doing research on the past of a potential mentor is essential.

“If you are looking for a mentor, research what they did BEFORE offering their mentoring services. You might be surprised,” says Herald.

More is more

Why stop at one mentor? Having multiple mentors on board with different backgrounds and skill sets will provide greater diversity of thinking and a more well-rounded experience.

What are the pitfalls of using a business mentor?

Of course, there are the instances where mentoring doesn’t work out, or perform as well as it should. Companies or individuals can potentially be disappointed with the results they see, especially when they have invested considerable time and money into the project. Without the proper planning and strategy in place, often a mentor program will fall short first time around. Common reasons for underperformance include:

  • Unclear strategy
  • Poor planning prior to implementation
  • Picking the wrong mentor
  • Weak relationship between mentor and mentee
  • Lack of funding
  • Weak company-wide commitment and support

Curtis has seen it all in his many years of experience, but says that an internal mentoring scheme can help to address these issues, provided that the buy in for the programme comes right from the top. 

“I have seen too many schemes unconsciously sabotaged by no one senior actually saying that it is all right to release staff to be mentors. When we work with an organisation to set up their mentoring scheme, not only will we train the mentors, we train managers across all levels of the organisation to understand the expectations,” says Curtis.

Is a mentor program worth the investment?

Mentoring promises much, but it’s worth is generally backed up by facts. A 2016 Deloitte survey of millennials identified that of those intending to stay with an organisation for more than five years, most had received mentoring. 

In another Deloitte survey in 2017, it was found that people who receive mentoring are better paid and feel more satisfied with both their job and their career progression. That’s a win-win right there.

What does a mentor cost?

Like anything, the investment you make can range from small to large, depending on your budget.

According to Justin Herald, businesses or people thinking about engaging a mentor should be thinking about value, not cost.

Says Herald, “It all comes down to value. Not so much the value a mentor says they can provide, but the value of their successes and how that will assist the person looking for a mentor.”

For SMEs, a mentoring program can deliver tangible results

It doesn’t matter if you’re a large or small team, most employers and employees can benefit from the unbiased and unfettered viewpoint of a mentor. Mentors are great for keeping your spirits high in tough times, and for helping you to capitalise on your wins and successes.

When you find the right solution for you and your company, you will be well on the way to achieving greater growth through improved productivity, staff retention, satisfaction and employee engagement.

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