!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Advice on Mentoring

Monday, February 25, 2008

Advice on Mentoring

I have been underwhelmed by much of what I read on the subject of mentoring because of its obviousness and/or impracticality. A January 2008 article in the Harvard Business Review by Thomas J. DeLong (professor of management practice in the organizational behavior area at Harvard Business School), John J. Gabarro (professor emeritus of human resource management at HBS), and Robert J. Lees (former director of professional development at Morgan Stanley and head of human resources at Ernst & Young) stands out for its grounding in real-world experience and contemporary market realities.

"Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World" deals specifically with the employee development needs of professional service firms, such as consultancies and accounting firms. In today's globalized market, with its intense competition for engagements, senior members of professional service firms are under exhausting time pressure "to execute the business, manage projects, perform administrative functions, and somethimes run a special project for the managing partner." Time for mentoring junior people is, to say the least, tight.

All the same, DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees argue for finding time for mentoring. Otherwise, your firm will suffer from excessive turnover and underperformance.

What does a good mentor do? Based on their interviews with successful professionals, DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees conclude that, in essence, a good mentor
  • is someone absolutely credible whose integrity transcends the message, be it positive or negative.

  • tells you things you may not want to hear but leaves you feeling you have been heard.

  • interacts with you in a way that makes you want to become better.

  • makes you feels secure enough to take risks.

  • gives you the confidence to rise above your inner doubts and fears.

  • supports your attempts to set stretch goals for yourself.

  • presents opportunities and highlights challenges you might not have seen on your own.
DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees also identify four principles of good mentoring (here, slightly edited):
  • Mentoring is personal, i.e., each person mentored has individual needs and preferences that should shape what the mentor offers in the way of guidance. Protégés are looking for "concrete, hands-on feedback from a senior professional who takes a personal interest in their careers."

  • Provide mentoring to both A and B players. DeLong, Gabarro, and Lees estimate that a typical professional services firm has about 20% of its professionals in the A category, and about 70% in the B ("solid citizen") category. Just as with A players, mentoring B players will help the individuals in question contribute more effectively, and it will carry a special payoff since B players are more likely than A players to stay with the firm long-term.

  • Use a variety of means for developing employees, not just choice assignments, which can be in short supply. Other possibilities include shadowing a senior person on an assignment, doing research projects, and conducting pro bono work.

  • Junior people should make it their business to attract mentors; they should also mentor each other. In other words, junior members of a firm should seek out as mentors compatible senior colleagues with whom they share interests and goals. Junior people should also take advantage of opportunities to team up and share expertise, e.g., in completing special assignments.
In sum, a well-managed professional services firm will take positive steps to assure that its junior members receive the career guidance they need in order to build their professional skills and to advance in their careers — without having to seek professional opportunities elsewhere.