Creating the Mentorship Program You Want to See in the World

December 27, 2019 in
By Haylee Gans, Catherine Neale

This month’s truism is be the change you want to see in the world, focusing on leadership strategies. So, who is a leader? A leader is anyone with a lasting ability to influence. As we have learned in our blog earlier this month, transformational leaders motivate followers by articulating a compelling vision, serving as role models, stimulating their followers intellectually, and attending to each follower’s unique career development needs by providing individualized coaching and mentoring (Bass, 1985).

Mentoring and transformational leadership theories are complementary. The most aligned facet of transformational leadership is individualized consideration, where there is a recognition of the differing needs of followers, individualized attention, and coaching. Idealized influence emphasizes high levels of respect and knowledge sharing, is aligned with inspirational motivation, problem solving, and consideration and attention devoted to subordinates, all of which are crucial for a healthy and effective mentor relationship (Bass, 1990).

Subsequently, mentoring is a natural part of leadership. A mentor can be defined as a person with experience, expertise, wisdom and/or power who teaches, counsels, and helps less experienced or less knowledgeable people to develop professionally and personally (Gibson, Tesone, & Buchalski, 2000). Leaders serve as mentors to promote positive work attitudes (e.g., organizational commitment, turnover intentions, job satisfaction, and self-esteem) and career expectations and outcomes of followers. Two distinct types of mentoring exist: career development and psychosocial support. Career development involves actions which promote the career advancement of the protégé, such as coaching, challenging assignments, and sponsorship, while psychosocial support refers to relational actions such as counseling and role modeling (O’Brien et al., 2010). These outcomes may seem appealing to organizations, but without considering the individuals undergoing the mentorship experiences, the desired results may not come to fruition. So, how can we optimize the effectiveness of leadership through mentoring?

Given the importance of mentoring to career outcomes and the varying experiences of minority groups in organizations, group membership likely influences mentoring experiences. More specifically, women face substantial organizational and societal barriers in their careers. As a result, mentoring relationships are thought to be not only helpful, but also critical for women seeking career advancement and may provide the added benefit of buffering against discrimination (Linehan & Walsh, 1999; Ragins, 1989). Given the unique position of women engaging in and benefitting from mentoring, empirical evidence has shown that mentors are viewed as instrumental to overcoming gender barriers for women, providing women with several tools for career advancement such as feedback, confidence, and strategic information on company politics (Ragins, 1989).  As companies grow more diverse, leveraging the benefits of mentoring particularly for minority groups has grown of interest. Subsequently, gender differences should be considered as a factor impacting the success of mentoring relationships.

Taken together, the research on cross-gender mentoring relationships suggests a few strategic points to consider when crafting a mentoring program which optimizes career outcomes for women. 

Type: Informal Mentoring 

The first of these points is consideration of the benefits of informal mentoring over formal mentoring programs, or identifying methods for combining the two. Formal mentoring programs are most likely to lead to positive career outcomes when they mimic informal mentoring relationships or are offered in conjunction with the opportunity to form informal developmental relationships (Ragins & Cotton, 1999). Additionally, the deliberate and unprompted selection of a female protégé on the part of a senior mentor acts as a strong signal of the protégé’s qualities, facilitating an effective strategy for the career advancement of women (Dougherty et al., 2013; Ramaswami et al., 2010a; Ramaswami et al., 2010b).

Outcomes: Psychosocial support and career advancement 

An understanding of the differences between the psychosocial and career advancement benefits from homogeneous and cross-gender mentoring relationships should be considered in the development of mentoring programs. Research has found that female mentors may actually be particularly impactful for female protégés in different ways than male mentors (Sosik & Godshalk, 2000; Tharenou, 2005). For example, female mentors provide important psychosocial support, which helps to build trust through shared beliefs and higher levels of identification (Sosik & Godshalk, 2000; Tharenou, 2005). Importantly, higher levels of psychosocial support have also been shown to correspond with higher mentor satisfaction (Allen et al., 2004).

Matching: Deep-level similarity

Research has shown that deep-level similarity plays a central role in the satisfaction of mentoring relationships over demographic similarity (Lankau, Riordan, & Thomas, 2005). Deep-level similarity refers to dimensions such as personality, interests, work values, personal values, and organizational perspective. These factors have been shown to play a larger role than gender in mentoring relationship satisfaction. Subsequently, mentors and protégés can proactively seek alignment in these areas, in addition to the potential operationalization of these factors on the part of organizations.

Making a Mentorship Program

Many organizations strive to implement a mentoring program which is effective for their employees, but outside of the stray success story, many mentorship programs result in one or two emails, maybe a coffee date, and the eventual withdrawal from both parties. So, how can we cultivate effective mentoring relationships and allow our leaders to truly have an impact? 

One way to simulate the selection of protégés by important organization personnel would be to foster a company culture which supports the creation of informal, mentoring-oriented developmental relationships. Beyond high levels of visibility and signaling, informal mentoring programs may also have the added benefit of increasing the effectiveness and quality of the mentoring relationship by reducing stereotyping on the part of the mentor (Dougherty et al., 2013). Through this type of environment, employees will also have the key opportunity to solicit mentorship, which can further enhance career outcomes. 

Given the differential benefits to protégés in terms of career advancement and well-being, as well as informal and formal relationships, organizations may consider job crafting as a factor in mentoring programs. Part of job crafting includes the shaping and expanding of relational boundaries outside of direct contacts at work, such as expanding mentorship beyond formal programs (Wrzesniewski & Dutton, 2001). Therefore, employees should be encouraged to foster mentoring relationships outside of and in addition to formal mentor pairings. Organizations can also encourage employees to engage in more than one type of mentoring relationship and create varying programs for mentors based on intended outcomes, whether that be career advancement or psychosocial support. This allows leadership to expand beyond the role of supervisors, as mentors can stem from several organizational relationships.

Finally, organizations can leverage the knowledge that deep-level similarity can enhance the quality of mentoring relationships either through informal work events or through formal inventories. Both feelings of value-fit, as well as objective signaling and promotion, will allow employees, particularly minority groups such as women, to experience optimized career outcomes. Ultimately, job crafting and value-alignment could play an important role for employees navigating their experiences of career development and psychosocial support. Therefore, proactivity on the part of both mentors and protégés, as well as the fostering of a development-oriented organizational environment, will allow induvial to maximize their experiences in mentoring relationships and leaders to maximize their impact on protégés.  

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