Mentoring in the Workplace: Empathy by the Back Door

While there are many private sector mentoring programmes in place, these are too often seen as 'nice-to-have', but not essential. Many businesses have yet to appreciate the real added value that mentoring can have in many areas of employee performance.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to get involved with a mentorship programme called 50 Foot Women, set up to equip young women with the skills, confidence and networks they need to gain quicker, fairer and better access to professional life in London. Having spent the previous year in the United States, where 71% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programmes in place, I was eager to take up the opportunity. I found it beyond helpful in terms of its ability to provide me with advice, structure and a 'helicopter view' of my career choices. For me, what appeared to initially address the 'soft' issues surrounding one's professional life, actually ended up confronting, and intrinsically solving, many 'hard' career, workplace and personal issues.

Since that experience I have seen the concept of mentoring grow in the UK, not only becoming highly popular, but increasingly de rigueur as an element of policy solutions in a wide range of contexts. For example, mentoring is now a key feature of initial training in public service professions, including teaching, nursing, and career guidance and is increasingly proving its worth in the private sector.

Of course, mentoring is by no means a new concept: Mentor was the old-age friend of Odysseus, responsible for his son Telemachus during the Trojan War and subsequent adventures. It also shares many traits in this country with age-old institutions. For example, conventionally choosing godparents, aside from its religious connotations, was as much about advancing ones child by integrating them, from birth, with someone of high social standing and education who could impart wisdom and share knowledge in order to further them in the ways of life. Equally, "old boy networks" are based on the importance associated with being part of a cross-generational network, joined by a commonality (i.e. school or business connections), who provide advice, introductions, networking opportunities, employment opportunities and both personal and professional help.

What is clear is that throughout history, mentoring has been used by the great and the good to advance their professional careers, in a variety of ways.

Today, there are still many definitions of mentoring, though they all essentially involve a partnership where a 'mentee' is assigned to a more experienced 'mentor', who passes on valuable aspects of their own accumulated experience and wisdom for the benefit of the mentee's personal and professional development.

Successful mentoring relationships often transcend this as mentors gain an understanding of the world view of another generation and equally, mentees can help senior colleagues to see new perspectives and shifts in societal behaviour, for instance, the growing importance of social networks. These partnerships, inevitably, bring a new level of empathy into the workplace as greater understanding between groups of people develops. This empathy can increase mutual respect for co-workers and remind us of the nuances of an individual's needs, as opposed to just focusing on generic rules and regulations.

Whilst career progression has always been high on the list, the availability of mentoring and training capabilities, particularly by senior management, is increasingly playing a more definitive role in job selection for potential candidates. For example, a recent report published by Harvard Business Review highlights that the lack of training opportunities and mentorship schemes in the workplace are the two biggest reasons why young workers leave. Indeed, companies that provide mentoring opportunities are better equipped, and proven to deal more positively with talent acquisition, periods of intense, disruptive high growth, change management, C-suite succession planning and board director development. Similarly, as the talent pool has opened up, both in terms of diversity and skill sets, the need for a more diverse and engaging workplace culture is required. One solution is by implementing mentorship programmes to attract, motivate and retain these new social groups as studies have shown that women and minority groups react the most positively to both external and internal mentoring programmes.

While there are many private sector mentoring programmes in place, these are too often seen as 'nice-to-have', but not essential. Many businesses have yet to appreciate the real added value that mentoring can have in many areas of employee performance. Nonetheless, the consequence of underestimating the value of mentorships is, I believe, a great mistake. The challenges of responding to relentless demands for increased efficiency improvements, a highly competitive recruitment market, and new legislation and corporate governance codes have pushed people and talent issues within business, to the top of the agenda.

As businesses try and increase their employee retention rate and hire high-value people, the culture that companies have is increasingly important. Whilst an organisation's ability to attract, motivate and retain employees may centre on them being unique, it may also crucially depend on the ability for business to bring in a level of emotional intelligence and empathy to the workplace. In the complex, connected, diverse and demanding world which we inhabit, this may become the most essential attribute of an employer's brand.

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