UNSW UNSW Business School UNSW Business School

Mentoring The High Fliers: Strategy For the Getting of Wisdom

November 22, 2011

​​Passing knowledge and expertise from one generation to another is something people do almost without thinking. Sharing insights gleaned from experience and wisdom via word-of-mouth has not only ensured human survival, but also encouraged creativity, motivation and an entrepreneurial spirit. Think of Bach's promotion of the young Mozart or, a more prosaic example, the now-late British airline entrepreneur Freddie Laker's coaching of the then-fledgling magnate, Richard Branson.

​​In business, mentoring relationships often arise informally between experienced professionals and protégés. In many instances, the mentor has identified a promising talented individual. Conversely, a proactive subordinate seeks out the opportunity for guidance. But many companies have realised that leaving mentoring to chance is not enough to ensure high-flyers will land in the senior ranks.

"Mentoring fosters progress and is just very good business practice," saysRosamund Christie, an executive coach who also teaches on the AGSM MBA program at the Australian School of Business. "It offers a time to reflect and be listened to and offered advice. Most people find that incredibly valuable." Many top firms also see the value in helping employees become more engaged with the company, with improved knowledge and communication skills, exposure to new ideas and fresh ways of thinking.
There are reasons why companies are paying more attention to the benefits that formal mentoring can offer. Leading coaching and mentoring specialists in the Asia-Pacific region, ARGroup, report that up to 40% of new executive appointments fail within the first 12 months, so anything that helps a company hang on to talented staff is obviously a positive.

The global financial crisis has also played a part in bringing about a new mindset among business leaders. Michael Luscombe, who recently retired as chief executive of supermarket chain Woolworths, suggests part of that new mindset is a more reflective corporate environment that is opening up to wider community expectations – such as getting more women into top executive roles. That's one reason why forward-thinking companies are far more likely to be running structured mentoring programs than they were 10 years ago, Luscombe says.

"Mentoring and coaching have taken off phenomenally since 2002," agreesCatherine Collins, a senior lecturer in Organisation & Management at the Australian School of Business, who instigated a mentoring program with AGSM MBA (Executive) students. Collins says mentoring MBA students during their final Strategic Management Year (SMY) is a natural link, transitioning them into the next stage of their career.

The program pairs students with experienced AGSM alumni who work across a range of industries. It provides high-achieving MBA (Executive) students with an opportunity to take what they have learnt as individuals and apply that to their careers and, in turn, their organisations and communities, says Chris Styles, deputy dean and director of AGSM. The AGSM's three-month mentoring program runs twice a year and is a way of broadening students' networks – which the organisers hope students will continue to expand.

Changing Mental Models

Getting the mentor-mentee connection right is the key to success. Denise Weinreis, AGSM's Strategic Management Year career mentoring director, is charged with that task. She sees the opportunity as working for both sides of the relationship – reconnecting alumni with the School and a new generation of graduating students who are able to build on their professional networks.

Research shows that it's not so much a shared work background that is paramount in matching people, as shared values. Matching infers there is a formula involved, but Weinreis says it's more about family situations, career goals and personal values. "The role of the mentor is to challenge a mentee's thinking and career approach, so diversity of thought is crucial in getting someone to change their mental model," she says. Weinreis compares the mentor's role to that of a counsellor in that people have to be comfortable so that they feel safe to open up, share personal information and take risks.

Galvanised by the support they receive and ambition to advance their careers, mentoring often leads to career change for graduates with 80% of them jumping jobs or industries in the first year after completing the course. "For example, they may move from multinationals to more entrepreneurial companies or into positions within a company where they have more strategic roles or they may start their own entrepreneurial venture," observes Peter Murmann, academic director of AGSM's SMY.

The answer to what makes for effective mentoring is still evolving, admits Collins, but certain things need to happen as a prerequisite with expectations being aired and goals agreed on both sides of the relationship. Collins' research suggests that mentees come away more satisfied when they focus on the tasks and their achievements rather than interpersonal relationships, she says. "Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations about developing a really good rapport straight away, rather than one that evolves over time. It's that old question: does performance drive satisfaction at work or vice versa? If you put action plans and projects in place then the rapport with the mentor will improve," Collins points out.

At its best, mentoring should be a mutually rewarding experience. "We want the mentor to get something out of it because we care about their lifelong learning," declares Weinreis. The exposure to the next generation's thinking is invaluable for a mentor, she notes. In the past the AGSM has run information sessions for mentors on effective mentoring styles and processes, and Collins is now surveying alumni to discover how to improve preparation for the mentoring experience.

The Mentor's View

Mentoring is an enormously rewarding experience, insists Kimberley Reynolds, a consultant and project manager at the New South Wales state-owned railway operator, RailCorp, who has participated in formal mentoring programs. The process is even more rewarding when it occurs informally and Reynolds identifies a protege who would benefit from help or direction. She looks for "someone with a good value system and a good work ethic who will do well in a mentoring relationship". Reynolds agrees that a mentor should be someone outside of the mentee's immediate work environment because confidentiality is crucial to fostering honesty and openness in the relationship.

Although not mentored herself when she was younger, Reynolds says she liked to help kids at school and learnt about the importance of having a strong support network from her mother and grandmother "who forged ahead with life although they were in domestic roles that weren't recognised".

"I feel it's a duty of someone in a leadership position to help shape the lives of young people," says the former AGSM MBA student. Reynolds' conviction has led her to quit a few organisations that didn't share her commitment. Some companies she's worked for have even been suspicious of her motives, she says. "I used to get looks because people would think I'm socialising or wasting time. It wasn't recognised if you stayed behind and helped people. I had to have a lot of self-belief in the beginning. So I learnt early on how to do it quietly without much fanfare. It wasn't until I was 25 and I got to (fast moving consumer goods multinational) Unilever that I was acknowledged for what I was doing and supported by them."

Reynolds defines mentoring as "optimising the individual and the environment". "What can I do as a leader in creating an environment that is conducive for that individual to move forward? I'm looking for skills and motivation and my role is finding a fit for that person, putting them in touch with people." 

Reynolds says she studies people, reads body language and asks the right questions, creating a safe environment so that a person can open up and be honest with her. "For me there's a timeframe when people will jump over the barrier and start having real conversations with you. Sometimes it will take 15 minutes, other times it might take several hours."

However good the individual mentor, Collins believes that it requires whole company support to ensure the success of a mentoring program. "There needs to be expectations on both sides: that the mentees will come back to their job with new skills and that they are going to be supported by their manager; also that the job might need to adapt to them," she says.

Peter Wilson, national president of The Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), believes a full understanding of mentoring is still being developed, although it has been playing an increasing role in business since the 1980s when mentoring comprised about 2% to 3% of workplace learning. "Today, around 70% of learning comes on the job, 20% comes from mentoring and 10% is didactic. It's definitely increased the way people learn about issues in the workplace," Wilson says.

Global economic trends have played a part in shifting that balance as the emerging Eastern powers have influenced the way Australia does business. "They have much more relationship-based working structures and it has caused us to review the way we operate," contends Wilson, who is currently writing a book on mentoring.

Cross-organisational mentoring has been very successful in Australia, particularly for advancing the careers of senior women executives, Wilson argues. "Cross-organisational schemes – where a CEO of company A mentors someone in company B – work because the chairmen now are all looking for female, non-executive directors to mentor (because they're under pressure to hire talented female directors) and they're getting the best of the crop who then go on to be mentors themselves."

Leveraging women into more senior roles and on to boards has led to the establishment of formal mentoring programs run by the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the AHRI program, launched in March 2010, which targets high-achieving women. The Australian Institute of Company Directors also teams women aspiring to be company directors with some of its members. Other schemes such as the CEO Institute's one-on-one mentoring program are open to both men and women mentees.

The gender emphasis has arisen because women traditionally have not had easy access to the networking that is so often played out in predominantly male domains, such as pubs, clubs and golf courses. Their time tends to be more constrained by family commitments as well. Therefore mentoring has presented a possible means for women to break into these networks, or create new networks of their own.

"The respect that comes with knowing someone well and having an easy understanding of their mindset and capability opens doors to boardrooms and executive roles," Christie says. It's natural, not to mention economically sound judgment, to want to put people in jobs whose capability we can be sure of, she argues.

A positive from cross-gender mentoring is in generating awareness among senior male executives of the talented women in their companies and beyond. And for women, Christie claims, it helps to demystify "the authority" that men carry.

The reverse situation of a man being mentored by a senior woman executive, although not unknown is far more unusual. Out of the 40 alumni mentors from AGSM who volunteered in the most recent program, two were women while the majority of students (75%) are male. "As the mentoring program develops we are seeking to create more gender balance," says Collins.

Gender imbalances aside, Reynolds believes the culture of an organisation has a lot to do with whether mentoring is considered of value. It boils down to "the care factor", which is missing from a lot of companies, she says. Reynolds describes one person that she's had a mentoring relationship with for 15 years. Now when they meet up, he will mentor her as well. "At what point that changed, I'm not sure and it doesn't matter but it's really nice, now I can talk about my career as well … And if they catapault over you? That's great, too – to make them successful and make it easier for everyone around them." ​
comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe now

BusinessThink is a free online publication. By subscribing, the latest edition will be delivered to your inbox once a month.

​ ​
Print PDF