During times when L&D budgets are tight, all organisations should facilitate mentoring, but two categories of employee in particular should be targeted, says professional mentor Jen Dalitz.
Dalitz, the "SheEO" of leadership development company Sphinxx, says that when jobs are being cut and roles consolidated, informal mentoring is a low-cost - or no-cost - way to up-skill staff quickly.
The employees with the most to gain from mentoring include those who have an "obvious gap" in their skills, she told HR Daily.
"The obvious one with women that I work with is that mentoring can really help them to improve their networking and political clout in the organisation.
"You're filling that [gap of] nous - how do you get stuff done. It is really good to match a woman with a gap like that up with a well-connected male in the organisation so he can impart some of that organisational knowledge with her, and show her how to get stuff done."
The second category of employees to target are those who have recently been promoted.
"Mentoring is a great low-cost option for skilled people who might have moved from a technical expert into a leadership role, for example. They might not have any leadership experience, so you could match them up with a mentor who has a lot of leadership experience, and that person becomes a go-to for the mentee so they have someone to bounce ideas off, rather than try to struggle through those people challenges on their own."
Dalitz says the arrangements actually achieve "far superior" outcomes when mentees choose their mentors, so a good arrangement can be to ask experts and leaders in the business to make themselves available as mentors and let other employees know who they are.
Employees should be encouraged to take a degree of ownership for their development, she says, so the onus can be on them to approach people they admire and want to learn from.
Potential mentors don't require any particular traits, she says, "so it's not a matter of going through the business and picking the most obvious suitors".
"The obvious choice [for mentors] is people who have skills to offer, who might have a high degree of expertise and be key people in the business, and get them to mentor others and impart that knowledge.
"But by the same token, mentoring can work really, really well with individuals who don't naturally offer up those skills for other people, so it's a good way for them to have some structure around sharing some of the thinking that they have."
She says there are benefits on both sides of the arrangement: "I think everyone should have the opportunity to mentor other individuals - it helps them to develop their leadership skills, and it helps them to improve their profile in the business as well."
Guidelines and support
The most common way that mentoring arrangements go wrong is by simply not achieving anything - "it's just a waste of time and a lot of hot air", Dalitz says.
"So you avoid that by setting expectations for the program upfront. The other thing that can go wrong is you have a bad match between the mentor and the mentee and they just don't get along, which again means you don't get the outcome you're looking for.
"That's where choosing your own mentor comes to the front, because if you choose your own, it's less likely to happen."
Setting expectations includes setting a start and end date for the relationship, "so it's not something that lingers on forever. When you have a start and an end, you can start to set goals for that relationship and period of time".
Protocols are important, Dalitz says, "because if the mentor is going to the trouble of offering up their time and sharing their expertise, then there's a certain onus on the mentee to make sure they actually follow through on commitments they make, and not just turn up from one meeting to the next, having not actioned any of the items that were discussed".
Mentors also need some initial information and guidance, she says, so organisations should provide a "how to" manual and a kick-off session that explains how they are expected to act with the mentee, and what sort of responsibility is on their shoulders.
Finally, it's a good idea to "close the loop at the end of the program", Dalitz says.
"The mentor and mentee can come back with other mentors and mentees and do a bit of a wrap up. Mentors get together in small groups and talk about what's working for them, and mentees get together and compare notes.
"There might be progress checks along the way for everyone as well - you certainly can do that if you've got the resources. All of those things can improve the process for everyone involved.
"Obviously the more time and structure you can put around those elements of the program, then the better the outcome."
Dalitz is speaking on the topic of mentoring at the Australasian Talent Conference in Sydney in May. Click here for details and to register.