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Mentoring Leadership

For mentoring to work, business and HR leaders should return to some basic truths and tactics to make their programs more effective.

Monday, July 21, 2014
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The story goes that legendary football coach Vince Lombardi's frustration with his Green Bay Packers' losing streak led him to conclude the team needed to go back to the basics. He gathered his professional football team in the locker room. He held a football in the air and declared, "Gentlemen, this is a football!"

As I work with senior leaders frustrated with the ineffectiveness of their mentoring programs, I always start with the grounding question: "Do you want a program, or do you want applied learning?" It seems much like asking, "Do you want a diversity program, or do you want diversity?" Some leaders actually sought a way to declare they had a program and seemed uninterested in outcomes such as winning the war for talent. Some believed the means must drive the ends, and were reluctant to abandon their forms, procedures and checklists.

Organizations that view the addition of mentoring as an integral part of their culture know it must be treated like any other effective change effort. And that begins with focusing on the outcome and then identifying the tools and supports needed to create that sustainable outcome. The ultimate goal of mentoring is to facilitate learning that contributes to capacity and performance, and is nurtured in a one-to-one learning relationship. The prescription needed to accomplish that ultimate goal comes from accurate answers to seven key questions:

* What are the reasons targeted one-to-one learning relationships are not already prevalent in the organization?

* What do the actors (mentor and protégé) in learning relationships require to make their relationship effective?

* What cultural factors currently support such learning relationships?

* What cultural factors currently inhibit or hamper such learning relationships?

* What are the obvious, known rewards to mentor and protégé in a learning relationship that is effective, not just perfunctory?

* What are the obvious, known benefits to the organization for sponsoring and supporting such learning relationships?

* What are the cultural traps that can derail such learning relationships once these relationships begin?

The problem with most new program introductions (such as mentoring) is they are viewed by leaders as extras -- as in, "If you have extra time" or "If you get around to it." Effective mentoring, on the other hand, is just as integrated as a concern for the bottom line, attention to the customer or interest in employee engagement. For instance, when top leaders are concerned about expense control, they generally don't start a program. They influence an attitude and manage an orientation. While they often have tools that support and procedures that facilitate, it is a mind-set of frugalness they care most about, not form completion.

It should be no different with mentoring. Mentoring is sustained when it becomes part of who one is as a leader, not an extra "to do" one checks off. The key to integrating mentoring as a natural part of the organization lies in five core culture-change elements -- inclusion, worth, grounding, communication and modeling.

* Ask for leaders' help. Many organizations have historically been long on pronouncement and short on participation. And, the more top-down "now-hear-this" decisions are made, the more the "we-they" schism is fueled. There is a certain magic that inclusion brings to all relationships -- especially when change is needed. The ancient adage "people will care if they share" has great truth. Sustainable change will only occur if it has a widespread "we" approach. Get leaders' input in the design, delivery and maintenance of mentoring.

* Show leaders the worth. Leaders are not inherently selfish. However, they clearly choose where to put their efforts based on what they perceive as worthy of those efforts. Effective change management requires ensuring there is a clearly perceived link between their efforts and some outcome people believe has emotional worth. Worth comes in many forms -- economics, affirmation, growth, status and power. However, the root of worth lies in the degree to which it has emotional grounding ... it matters deeply to the leader.

* Hardwire mentoring to relevant anchors. Leaders have typically seen many change efforts come and go, leaving them skeptical of sustainability. This means the change must be deliberately hardwired to organizational anchors -- norms, values, mores and symbols. Relevant anchors are those that capture the attention of leaders and are deemed important. For example, when the incentive system is altered to reflect the change effort, when change champions are the people getting the best assignments or promotions, or when executive leaders frequently ask for status reports on the change efforts, such actions telegraph relevance.

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* Over-communicate with leaders. Effective change management requires extraordinary communication (extra and out of the ordinary). Any change effort can fuel rumors, myths and misconceptions. The best remedy to erroneous information is to communicate ... both the information disseminated and the feedback sought and given. As leaders get the information they need (especially success stories), their hesitation to embrace the change is quelled as they develop more favorable predictions of its success. Communication must take many forms, must be constant and, above all, must be candid, timely and frank.

* Get top leaders to walk the talk. Effective change management requires consistent models -- actions by those seen to hold the greatest influence. People sense a change effort's importance when they see leaders acting consistently with the needed change. People are leader-watchers. This means all the actions, behaviors and priorities of leaders must be consistent (over time) and congruent with the change effort. People don't watch mouths, they watch moves ... observation counts far more than conversation.

Mentoring can make a powerful addition to the competitiveness of an organization. Author Arie de Geus wrote in his best-selling book, The Living Company, "Your ability to learn faster than your competition is your only sustainable competitive advantage. As mentoring is made a vital part of the organization, it is helpful to remember what Price Pritchett labeled the 20-50-30 rule. Twenty percent of the people in any population are the early endorsers of change, eager to embrace progress. Thirty percent are likely to resist, no matter what actions are taken. The focus should be on the 50 percent of "fence sitters" -- those early resistors who, with effective change management, could join the endorsers.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker, consultant and author. One of his recent books is the international best-selling Managers as Mentors (with Marshall Goldsmith). He can be reached at Send questions and comments about this feature to

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