“What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.” ~ Plutarch
Organizations are increasingly scrutinized for both their financial and emotional competence. Indeed in the difficult and unique economic pressures facing organizations, one could argue emotional competence is essential to sustain financial viability. As noted by Porter-O’Grady and Malloch (2011), emotional competence “is often difficult to describe or measure” though “its absence is usually very obvious” (p. 326). Recognizing the reciprocal effect of emotional competence and business practices, quantum leaders take a holistic approach and embrace the intangible “soft stuff” valuing as equally vital to organizational health and development as tangible measurements (Porter-O’Grady & Malloch, 2011, p. 326).
In order to maintain a competitive edge or increase their trust capital, organizations have a heightened emphasis on self-development programs such as mentoring in the workplace, 360-degree feedback, and courses designed to aid self-reflection and awareness (Harriss & Harriss, 2012; Nesbit, 2012; Washington, 2011). Washington (2011) notes, “over a third of the nation’s major companies have developed mentoring programs…to assist in the career development of employees as well as to develop and implement succession plans” (p. 164). Apart from compulsory training, leaders often seek out employer-sponsored coaching as well as independent learning (Nesbit, 2012; Washington, 2011).
Given the evolutionary and continuous nature of self-development, employer-sponsored courses are limited in their transformational outcome and are costly to support (Nesbit, 2012). Thus, such training is typically limited to a select few. Moreover, to realize the greatest benefit, leadership development must be ongoing and experientially based (Nesbit, 2012). Episodic, directed reflection realizes finite benefit. According to Nesbit (2012), “reflection itself cannot be mandated. Thus, a central need in traditional leadership development is the skillful engagement in self-reflective thinking by leaders” (p. 207).
Mentorship is a cultivation opportunity for mentor and protégé to develop self-reflective skills and increase dialogue, emotional competence, and complexity communication (Porter-O’Grady & Malloch, 2011). Mentoring serves a dual objective of leader development and as an organizational tool for best-fit assessments and team building (Porter-O’Grady & Malloch, 2011). Pinkavova (2010) relates her experience as a coach to “support and challenge…[which] may speed up development by providing the space for critical reflection of assumptions” (p. 18).
Leadership development cannot, however, be a unifocal endeavor exclusively concentrated on self-discovery, organizational acculturation, or professional advancement. In tandem with mentoring, leader-protégés must hone their perception-interpretation intelligence to effectively look outward and discern the implicit narrative. Intuitively, leaders appreciate perception is not interpretation, though effectively managing the nuanced distinction can lack clarity. Otara (2011) suggests, “how we react depends on what we hear, not necessarily on what was said” (p. 21). Likewise, “in addition to mechanics of perception, it is also important to recognize every person has a unique frame of reference” and “interpretation…is dependent on many factors not directly related to the immediate situation” (Otara, 2011, p. 22).
Mentorship can either be formal (mandated or volitional through an employer) or informal (self-directed and independent of an employer) (Washington, 2011; Harriss & Harriss, 2012). Most often, mentorship is informally constructed and “developed through interactions of senior and junior employees as well as information networking opportunities outside the workplace” (Washington, 2011, p. 165). Individuals may also solicit mentoring from their superior. For many reasons, informal styles tend to be more effective than formal (Harriss & Harriss, 2012; Washington, 2011). Specifically, informal relationships tend to be more enduring lasting three to six years as compared to formal opportunities lasting an average of six months to one year (Washington, 2011). Formal mentorships are most often characterized by finite, objective goals whereas informal mentorships more readily facilitate psychosocial development and an adapted focus (Washington, 2011).
Mentees of the informal approach tend to enjoy higher salaries than those formally mentored and “enhanced self-efficacy and self-esteem, promotions, job satisfaction, increased salaries, and greater career satisfaction” (Washington, 2011, p. 166). In a study of women health care professionals, Hopkins, O’Neil, and Bilimoria, (2006) found mentorship was specifically highlighted as an advancement strategy. Even so, Washington (2011) found those informally mentored “viewed the career barriers as more of a problem than women who are formally mentored” (p. 169) suggesting employer-sponsored mentorship is more seamless for advancement.
Mentorship may take two basic approaches: professional development or career advancement (Harriss & Harriss, 2012). The lines may blur such that professional development leads to career advancement and vice versa. Washington (2011) details additional benefits to mentorship including informed internal recruitment resulting from greater insight to employee perspectives and invested interpersonal development, professional exposure, promotion of organizational best practices, and increase in information sharing. Both Washington (2011) and Hopkins et al. (2006) reason women, in particular, advocate mentorship as an avenue to increased access to the greater network suggesting culture and information sharing is primarily the purview of men thereby decreasing their chances for professional development and career advancement. Despite the benefits of mentorship, Washington (2011) notes it is often challenging to identify a mentor. Other barriers include fear of favoritism by a superior or misinterpretation/misrepresentation of the relationship between a male and female. Mentoring aids assimilation of organizational culture. Schein (2004) describes acculturation as:
Much of what is at the heart of culture will not be revealed in the rules of behavior taught to newcomers. It will only be revealed to members as they gain permanent status and are allowed into the inner circles of the group in which group secrets are shared (p.18)
Such “lack of cultural fit” (Washington, 2011, p. 171) is greatly ameliorated by mentoring. Through association, mentors can increase newcomers’ legitimacy quotient, provide influential support, and help navigate expectations. Harriss and Harriss (2012) suggest, “the mentor’s knowledge of the department may make it easier for them to provide career advice and counseling” (p. 18). Similarly, established employees gain through cultural and interpersonal development and guidance during promotions. Though there is no “magic bullet”, a mentor’s experience is 20/20 foresight for mentees (Porter-O’Grady & Malloch, 2011).
While mentoring is mutually beneficial to a mentor and mentee and is “linked to both nontangible and tangible benefits” (Washington, 2011, p. 166), some relationships may detract. Porter-O’Grady and Malloch (2011) describe mentees deeply invested in the mentor relationship who consequently lack the motivation to seek other employment opportunities or simply discontinue the relationship after it reaches its natural conclusion. Such toxic mentoring, as described by Porter-O’Grady and Malloch (2011), provoke protégé unhealthy attitudes and practices stymieing development.
Mentees may be so intent on pleasing their mentor and blinded by admiration, they subsume negative characteristics or become disillusioned (Porter-O’Grady & Malloch, 2011). Similarly, mentors may project antipathetic philosophies and behaviors and the experience becomes “more a cloning process than a means of growth and development” (Porter-O’Grady & Malloch, 2011, p. 371). Thus mentors can facilitate healthy organizational citizenry or a detrimental outlook.
Over the years, I have benefited through several informal mentorships. My informal mentorship experiences have not resulted in career promotions though I have gained professional depth and self-awareness. My experience is a mix of employment affiliations and solicited mentoring opportunities. From my perspective, employer-based mentoring is typically restricted to executive leadership and is often used in response to negative behavior or development of leaders.
As a consequence, mentoring is often used as instructive rather than transformational. Over time, my expectations from mentorship have evolved. Early in my career, I perceived mentoring experiences primarily as information sharing and networking. In retrospect, I did not distinguish between teaching and mentoring and understood the process to be a passive exchange of information. I was too young in my career and immature in self-reflection to be as fully impacted as I otherwise might have been. I strived to apply the advice, however, I did not have the framework to effectively appreciate my effect on the outcome nor a sophisticated vision of others.
I now understand mentoring is an active practice of sharing rather than transfer of skills and philosophies. As a mentor and protégé, I must independently engage in self-reflection and use the experience as a beginning point to further my personal and professional advancement. As such, the experience of mentorship broadens my framework to cultivate my own experiences. Please share in the comments below or email us.
Hannah Thomas has spent the past 23 years in project and program management, working in biotech and healthcare. She received her Masters of Science in Clinical Research Administration from the George Washington School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Hannah has managed projects guiding clinical research and examining patient care. She works to bring big-data, analytics, and critical thinking to solving systemic and programmatic problems.