Skip to main content
leadership lab

Jelena Zikic is an associate professor at the School of Human Resource Management at York University

Formal mentoring programs – organization-assisted matching between a mentor and a protégé, usually short term – are a way of helping newcomers learn the ropes and/or assisting more junior employees to advance in their careers.

What is perhaps less common is for these formal mentoring relationships to advance and become strong long-term work connections, as may be the case with informal mentoring – when we naturally gravitate to mentor someone.

However, a recent study found that even formal mentoring can lead to high-quality relationships that last.

So, what is critical to make your formal mentoring program more beneficial for both the mentor and the protégé?

Promote holistic exchange instead of strict mentoring guidelines

Many formal mentoring programs come with a set of guidelines that mentoring partners may be asked to follow. However, our findings show that in this "meeting of strangers" where two parties are matched by the organization, the best formal mentoring relationships did quite the opposite. First and foremost, successful formal mentoring relationships worked at lowering the initial uncertainty when meeting someone new. This entails partners' willingness to openly share their previous career journey early on in the formal mentoring relationship. Just as important is acknowledging work-life connections as you share your story. Thus, approaching a new mentoring relationship in a more holistic fashion and being open to sharing one's background more broadly are some of the key characteristics of successful formal mentoring.

Encourage cross-cultural matching

Not just in Canada, but globally, work environments are as diverse as the marketplace in which organizations operate. We find that formal mentoring programs that emphasize cross-cultural matches are a unique opportunity to enhance cross-cultural understanding and skills of both mentoring partners. In fact, our study finds that contrary to the popular belief about mentoring being typically more beneficial for the protégés, mentors, especially those in cross-cultural matches, can gain just as much. Cross-cultural mentor-protégé dyads exchanged a variety of cultural knowledge and did not just learn about each other but learned from each other. For example, mentors reported improved cross-cultural communication and coaching skills as well as having more in depth understanding of diversity issues and how one may address them in day-to-day multicultural interactions at work.

Training for authentic communication pre-mentoring

While formal mentoring programs are typically "meetings of strangers," our study recommends that organizations invest time and effort in creating pre-mentoring workshops or orientation sessions as a key to building strong and lasting relationships. In particular, the topic that requires most emphasis is how to communicate authentically with one's mentoring partner. Communication is the foundation of all mentoring relationships. Especially when meeting for the first time someone with whom you are expected to build a fruitful working relationship, it is imperative to engage in mutual exchange and sharing, to be open-minded when learning about each other but also to focus on active listening. Thus, another key aspect of success of formal mentoring programs is preparing both mentoring partners how to engage in authentic communication ideally before starting their formal mentoring.

Build reciprocal relationships

We typically think of a mentor as someone in a more senior or leadership role for example, while the protégé would be a more junior employee wishing to advance in the organization. This traditional type of structure often creates certain power dynamics where the mentor is seen as the "guru" and the protégé is there to learn from him/her. Again, our findings show the opposite. Namely, the best relationships were those that fostered mutual exchange, no matter the rank in the organization. The greatest amount of learning and strongest relationships were those where mentoring partners took turns in terms of knowledge exchange and there was clear reciprocity (i.e., partners responded to the needs of each other) and learning occurred on both sides. Thus, formal mentoring programs should foster the idea that both partners are equal contributors and only when sharing and learning is reciprocal can these relationships grow into more positive and long-lasting relationships.

Executives and human-resources experts share their views in the ongoing Leadership Lab series. Find more stories here.

‘Their sessions were an hour, an hour and a half long, every six to eight weeks, sometimes involved a plane trip, and the agenda’s were mailed in advance’

Special to Globe and Mail Update