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The problem with mentoring

Voco Team

Traditional mentoring is passé. There, we said it.

Post-pandemic, mentoring has become the darling of many Learning & Development functions, rising into the top 5 learning and development priorities for many organisations and creating a 30% increase in mentoring initiatives. Statistics abound as to its effectiveness, but in reality it’s both an unsustainable and outdated way to support career development and progression.

But wait, sure all those glowing stats and celebrity endorsements can’t be wrong? Well, actually, yes they can and here’s why.

Unsustainable, unscalable

Let’s start with sustainability. According to The Wall Street Journal, 70% of Fortune 500 companies now have mentoring schemes in place but, a recent survey of 3,000 people in these schemes revealed that only 37% of them have been matched successfully with a mentor. 

There appears to be a significant gap between the desire to be mentored and the availability of good people to help the next ambitious bunch rise through the ranks. As the Harvard Business Review puts it, the ‘Achilles Heel’ in most mentoring programmes is the problem of marginal mentoring. Or, put simply, poor quality mentoring.

Amidst all the hype, it can be easy to forget to ask the most important question of any shiny ‘thing’ that proclaims to solve all our organisational woes; ‘does it actually work?’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘will it work here?’. 

The idea of mentoring is sound. Match someone junior with someone senior and watch them absorb all the knowledge and experience they need to succeed. Think Luke and Yoda, Mr Miyagi and Daniel, Harry and Dumbledore; you get the gist. They get a high profile advocate and, if we’re feeling generous, the mentee might even teach their mentor a thing or two as well. 

But, without support and guidance, a busy senior mentor may struggle to meet even the most basic requirement of the role - giving the mentee time to talk and to think. No amount of waxing on and off can replace the positive impact of being afforded the opportunity to share a problem and gain a new perspective on how to solve it.

Reinforcing traditional power dynamics

The second problem with a standard mentoring scheme is the perpetuation of traditional power structures. And that’s an issue because the whole ‘master and student’ dynamic is outdated and runs the risk of reinforcing glass ceilings rather than smashing through them.

Frequently cited as a mentoring success story, the FTSE 100 Cross-Company Mentoring programme, set up in 2003, has achieved some notably positive results enabling more women to get into board level positions through the mentorship and sponsorship of some of the UK’s top male execs. This is great but, nearly 20 years later, surely it’s time to move past power by-proxy? Though there is more female representation in the UK’s top jobs, the gender pay gap remains and, what social researchers Catalyst call the ‘leaky pipeline’ to senior leadership positions, still needs some significant patching.

The percentage of white men in top jobs is still high (65.8%) and increasing; while traditional mentoring promotes the advantages of seniority, and 71% of executives choose a protégé in their own image, some schemes may inadvertently reinforce racial and social inequality. 

And the statistics bear this out, with 67% of white workers who are satisfied with their career advancement having a mentor, compared to 56% of people of colour. This, of course, is absolutely not the desired goal of mentoring. In fact, any good scheme will be founded on the principle that mentorship opens doors and creates opportunities for those who might otherwise be excluded. If the impact of structural bias isn’t challenged, then the outcome will almost certainly not match this positive intention. 

Focusing on the future not the past

Finally, we all know that the world of work is changing fast and with four distinct generations in the workforce, all with very different expectations, career prospects and environmental and social concerns, it is not always smart to assume that youth learns from experience. 

Mentoring has been seen as a way to support career ambitions but, with 49% of millennials looking to quit their job in the next two years, Gen Zers demanding development that matches the speed of evolution in the outside world and many of us finding new flexibility in our working lives, perhaps it’s time to reassess what ‘ambition’ and ‘career progression’ really means and where the support for this should come from.

Theoretically mentoring promotes social learning - which is extremely beneficial - and having someone to help you to think through problems, share ideas and truly collaborate with is the key to career success. But your average mentoring programme may struggle to deliver this; however much we may want this seemingly self-sustaining and cost effective solution to work. 

Career development should no longer be seen as the ‘one size fits no-one’ upward trajectory we all recognise. Rather, it demands a personalised approach that promotes equality and supports the ever-changing reality of careers today. Because, let's face it, that’s what keeps things interesting. 

To find out more about how we have taken the best bits of mentoring to harness the power of peers, drop us a line here. We look forward to introducing you to the future.

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