By Bryan Leach

Mentoring is seen to be a way to improve performance and as something that needs to be structured and managed to be effective. 

From 2014 to 2016, a study performed in-depth interviews with 53 individuals (16 baby boomers, 18 generation Xers and 19 Millennials) from eight companies in Western Canada. The companies ranged in size from international, national and regional companies to a two-person consultancy. 

The companies represent a spectrum of approaches to mentoring, ranging from mentoring as an informal implicit expectation of senior practitioners, to a formal, structured mentoring program managed by the HR department. What emerged from the study were differing generational expectations of mentoring, frustrations and desired changes to mentoring relationships, and the effectiveness of mentoring in formal and informal mentoring settings.

As mentees, baby boomers expressed very low expectations of mentoring in their early career, and Gen-Xers also had low expectations of mentoring. In contrast, Millennials have high expectations of mentoring.

The frustrations with and desired changes to mentoring relationships expressed by all three generations were both structural and behavioural. The prominent desired changes are summarized in Table 1.

Structural Behavioural
More time Increase/improve communication
More formal structure Mentees take initiative to drive the process
Training on mentoring Mentee investing more of their own time
More informal mentoring interactions Mentors changing their approach
Focus on people in own office More mentor 'check-ins'
More frequent mentoring interactions More focus on professional vs. technical
More female mentors Build stronger relationships

Table 1. Desired changes to mentoring relationships

Baby boomers and Gen-Xers focused on structural changes, whereas Millennials tended to focus on behavioural changes. The structural changes also tended to be desired by individuals engaged in informal mentoring relationships. The behavioural changes were desired by individuals engaged in formal mentoring relationships. The differences between the desired structural and behavioural changes reflect the differences between informal mentoring relationships that develop organically and lack any formal structure, and formal mentoring relationships, which are managed and potentially can feel forced.

The study investigated the effectiveness of informal and formal mentoring systems. Interviewees’ organizations had either an informal mentoring system only, or both a formal and an informal mentoring system. Interviewees were asked to estimate the percentage of staff in their group, office or organization who had a mentoring relationship of any kind. This is the “take-up” percentage.

Mentoring needs to be talked about, promoted and actively engaged in by senior members of staff. Interviewees were also asked to estimate the percentage of these individuals who they felt were in a meaningful mentoring relationship. This is termed the “meaningfulness” percentage. Mentoring system effectiveness is calculated by multiplying the take-up percentage by the meaningfulness percentage.

Only minor variations were noted between the three generations. Informal mentoring in organizations with a formal mentoring system is the most effective at 55 per cent, followed by informal mentoring in organizations with no formal mentoring at 42 percent. Finally, formal mentoring has only 36 per cent effectiveness. The effectiveness of informal mentoring in organizations with formal mentoring is attributed to mentoring being openly discussed and promoted, and the organic development of informal mentoring relationships being more meaningful.

How can mentoring be made more effective from an organizational perspective? Mentoring needs to be talked about, promoted and actively engaged in by senior members of staff. This can be achieved through establishing and clearly articulating the organization’s goals and objectives for mentoring, be it formal or informal. Time needs to be allocated for mentoring.

If your company’s mentoring program is currently managed and highly structured, it may benefit from work to improve the quality of the individual mentoring relationships. If your company’s current mentoring program is informal and unstructured, it may benefit from the addition of some structure. Either way, a good starting point to maximize the effectiveness of mentoring in your organization may be to undertake an audit of the program, and talk to those involved in it.

Bryan Leach is a professional engineer and the principal catalyst with Imparando Consulting Ltd.