A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.
Looking to retain top talent? Consider implementing a mentorship program. Looking to BECOME top talent? Find a mentor and implement your own mentorship program.
As baby boomers age out of the workforce, the market for top talent becomes more competitive. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review cited a lack of mentoring programs as a primary reason why young high achievers seek employment with other companies.1 Studies also show that implementing corporate mentoring programs improves talent retention. For example, GlaxoSmithKline’s finance division saw only 2% turnover for participants in its mentoring program, compared to 27.5% turnover for other employees.
Mentorship is one of those rare business unicorns that has both universal and symbiotic benefits: it’s as much of a win-win for the bottom line in corporations as it is for small businesses and entrepreneurs. It’s a source of satisfaction with significant, positive impacts for both mentor and mentee. It’s the quintessential two-way street.
I never had a mentor when I was growing up. I didn’t have one in business either. The seemingly inescapable foundation of corporate competition was more familiar and understood than any opportunity to be taken under someone’s wing, taught or encouraged. The current buzzworthy nature of toxic corporate culture has helped with some symptom management when it comes to corporate competition, yet the fact that only 37% of professionals have mentors demonstrates how unimportant this relationship is within the corporate structure.
Instead of being seen as someone worth investing in, I was seen as competition by my superiors and many of my peers. Competition within an organization isn’t always a bad thing, by the way. The people who thrive in business are those who know how to both collaborate and compete with their colleagues. They clearly understand how work relationships affect their interests and the organization’s, carefully consider the risks and trade-offs, and as-objectively-as-possible decide how much to invest in each coworker and when to walk away.
Depending on the degree to which two individual’s personal interests clash or align determines where they fall on a spectrum:
Trying to defeat or deny another’s interests
Working to deter another in order to protect or advance self-interest
Acting to neutralize the impact of co-workers on self-interest
Maintaining self-interests while also advancing joint interests
Merging self-interests with the interests of others
Redefining self-interests to include intangible benefits
That being said, an overactive level of competition, especially when motivated by fear (of being passed over for a promotion, of being ignored, of being marginalized, etc), creates an environment where mentorship simply cannot survive, much less thrive. Much of this competitiveness is driven not only by fear but also by a misunderstanding of how self-interest truly works. I know all too well what it feels like to work inside organizations where my self-interest to grow as a professional and as a human felt as if they did not matter or were dismissed.
However, as a lifelong learner, and knowledge professional, those experiences and genuine lack of understanding I repeatedly saw and felt forced me to see that I had the ability to create my own mentorship program. I quickly discovered two things:
- One, I met an amazing group of peers who all craved the same things I did. They wanted to learn and to grow, and they also felt alienated and lost on their professional journeys. I saw this an opportunity for all of us to learn together.
- Secondly, I found out that I was in demand as a teacher and leader. The people around me saw my desire to learn and to share my knowledge with others as inspiring and empowering and they wanted to learn to do the same for others.
In that moment, something amazing happened. I felt so flattered to be seen by others as someone they wanted to learn from that it made me realize I could be the type of mentor for others that I had wished for in my own life and career. That mentorship began as a group of four, three of my peers and myself. Within a year it grew to twenty, and a year later when I left the company, it turned into a community event with people joining from several other local companies.
I would like to challenge you to take a look around you: inside your organization, and inside your peer groups. Who do you see that you may want to be your mentor, and who may be interested in learning something from you? It’s far too simplistic to define our work-based relationships as either negative or positive. We need to be looking at them to evaluate what we all can learn from them, what we can learn from each other. Sometimes, it is as simple as learning the types of characteristics and traits I don’t want to be engaged with, and that’s fine. However, I want you to look deeper, to see what you can learn and take away from each of your working relationships. Every single one of them is an opportunity for personal and professional growth and development.
If we begin to define mentorship as the very pinnacle of both personal and organizational relationships, it becomes easier to foster environments where it can thrive. Instead of competition, we can encourage collaboration at the highest level: one where those with more experience invest in those with less for the benefit of all parties involved.
Turnover is a natural enemy to traditional mentorship because “good” high-level corporate players are trained to adopt an organization-first mindset, as opposed to a person-first approach. I’ve discussed this before in the context of human capital, but it’s an important part of understanding why investing in a mentee has intrinsic value regardless of how long they stay with your company.
In fact, some of the most well-known mentor-mentee relationships are almost entirely organization-independent:
- Steve Jobs mentored Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg;
- Oprah Winfrey had a great mentoring relationship with the author Maya Angelou. Oprah said, “She was there for me always, guiding me through some of the most important years of my life. Mentors are important, and I don’t think anybody makes it in the world without some form of mentorship.”
- Warren Buffett’s iconic mentor was Benjamin Graham, known as the father of value investing who wrote “The Intelligent Investor.” After reading it, Buffett went to Columbia Business School to study under Graham and became lifelong friends. He has credited Graham for his career and investment philosophy. Today, Buffett and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, have had a similar relationship for nearly 30 years.
Interestingly enough, top corporations can see ROI in mentorship because they are proven to improve retention. Clive Davis, a senior director at Robert Half UK, estimates total replacement costs for a worker are at least 25% of that worker’s salary, and possibly higher for high-level jobs. Research by the Center for American Progress, meanwhile, in 2019 showed that the average cost to replace an employee was about one-fifth of that employee’s salary.
Mentoring brings many advantages to the mentee, including increased exposure, awareness, and performance. Mentoring also allows the mentee to perform in a way that’s more visible to management when tackling projects set by the mentor outside the normal scope of a mentee’s work. All of this enhances the likelihood that a mentee will receive promotional salary increases due to a higher level of visibility of improved performance and contribution to company value.
Through this increased level of awareness by management, mentoring also makes the mentee more likely to be recognized across the company when management engages in identifying bench strength (successors) for key functions in their areas of responsibility. It is therefore more likely for mentees to be considered to fill higher-paying jobs within the company, thus attracting higher salaries and, therefore, higher promotional increases.
Bottom line: all of this increased knowledge and exposure means increased chances of upward mobility which means greater retention.
With benefits both intangible and tangible for organizations, mentors and mentees alike, consider taking action: if you’re in a position to implement a mentorship program, do it! If you’re in a position to become a mentor and invest in someone else, offer! And if you’re in need of a mentor, consider reaching out to someone you admire. It’s a win-win-win.