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Why mentoring programmes and relationships fail

By David Clutterbuck who can be contacted at www.clutterbuckassociates.co.uk


1. Introduction

By and large, organisations donít advertise their failures, especially when there is considerable prestige connected with them. So you wonít read much about mentoring programmes that fail to deliver the goods. Even the academic literature contains only a handful of studies that examine programmes or mentoring relationships that donít deliver. Yet understanding the cause of other peopleís failure is often the key to oneís own success.

Both mentoring programmes and relationships fail due to a variety of causes and problems, which can be categorised into:

1) Contextual

2) Interpersonal

3) Procedural.

Letís look at them in this order.

2. Contextual problems with mentoring programmes and relationships

Contextual problems for schemes relate primarily to issues of clarity of purpose, or to the supportiveness of the organisational environment. For relationships, the key issues are again clarity of purpose, along with expectation by each party of the style of mentoring to be adopted.

The importance of clarity of purpose is illustrated by a case of a US-based multinational, which recently required its operations around the world to set up mentoring relationships between senior executives and hundreds of female employees. Participants knew that it was somehow related to the firmís equal opportunities drive, but nobody explained how mentoring was to contribute to this goal. Most of the relationships faded away within a few months, as both sides waited for the other to tell them what they should do. Clarity of purpose about the programmes -- why it is being done, what is expected of participants, what the respective roles and responsibilities of mentor and mentee are, and what the desired outcomes are -- is directly correlated with clarity of purpose in the individual relationships.

Mentoring also requires a reasonable level of support from within the organisation. There have been examples where mentors and mentees have effectively been penalised for taking working time out for their meetings, because there is no specific time allowance under "billable hours" procedures. Lack of expressed interest by top management is also likely to undermine mentoring programmes.

Clarity of purpose within the relationship is critical for energizing the relationship. Most relationships require a clear sense of purpose and a defined transition, which the mentee wishes to achieve. The clearer that transition is, the more focused the discussions and the easier it is to relate day-to-day issues to the larger goal. Even in relationships, where the primary objective is for the mentee simply to have an occasional sounding board, unless that is agreed up front, one or both parties will feel dissatisfied.

It should be obvious that mentoring for, say, disaffected youth requires a different approach to that for a senior executive. The mentees in these two examples will differ in their levels of learning maturity, self-esteem and the alternative resources they can call upon. Equally, different cultures demand different approaches to mentoring. Yet companies often assume that perceptions of mentoring are pretty standard. In reality, there are at least two major schools of mentoring and failure to clarify which is intended can cause confusion, argument and major misalignments of expectation between participants and between the organisation and the participants. The two schools can be characterised as:

1) Traditional School of Mentoring: US-originated, involving a considerable level of sponsorship or hands-on help, tapping into the authority or influence of the senior partner, with a focus mostly on career progress and primarily a one-way learning experience.

2) Developmental School of Mentoring: Much more of a two-way learning partnership, with the expectation that the mentee will do things for him- or herself, with the focus more on growing the less experienced personís capability, and owing its origins more to European experience.

Multinational companies, which have attempted to introduce mentoring around the world without taking these differences in mentoring style properly into account, are surprised when they meet resistance. It is a fundamental error to assume that everyone will have the same understanding of what mentoring is and what mentors should and shouldnít do.

We have seen examples of programme failure both from European-based companies attempting to introduce programme in their US subsidiaries and vice-versa. Even in regions, the understanding of what

constitutes mentoring can be radically different -- in France, it can be seen as almost entirely sponsorship based; in large parts of Asia-Pacific, a compromise between the two styles may often be required (or even, in one case, two mentors, one in each style!)

3. Interpersonal problems with mentoring programmes and relationships

Interpersonal problems for programmes arise from the reactions of people, who are not included in the pairings -- for example, the menteeís line manager, in employment, or peers, in programmes directed at helping disaffected youth. Within relationships, the primary issues tend to hinge around incompatibility of personalities and personal values between mentor and mentee.

Failure to engage line managers and promote the programmeís benefits to them is a common omission. It is not surprising that many of them fear being exposed by discussions between their direct reports and other, possibly more senior managers. Involving line managers in the design and overall management of the programme helps, as does briefing them about the advantages to them of having someone, with whom the mentee can discuss in confidence how the mentee manages his or her key working relationships (and especially how he or she manages their boss).

In very informal programmes, or programmes with low clarity of purpose, resentment from people not included is common. So, too, is the gossip, especially with regard to cross-gender pairs. Openness about the programme and why it targets particular groups of people helps to overcome such problems.

4. Procedural problems with mentoring programmes and relationships

Procedural problems arise from the way the programmes or the relationship is managed. We often see programmes that are heavily over-managed. In one case -- presented by the company concerned as best practice! -- mentors and mentees were given discussion sheets to create uniformity in what they talked about. The spontaneity and individual focus of effective mentoring were smothered by this over-attention.

In another case, the opposite occurred. An enthusiastic HR function simply told people they were to be mentor and mentee and left them to it. When relationships ran into difficulty, or participants needed advice, there was no provision to support them and the HR professionals were too busy running the next initiative.

At a relationship level, mentors sometimes fail to establish an appropriate balance between being directive and laissez faire. Indeed, a core skill for a mentor is to recognise when to lead and when to enable the mentee to lead discussions. One of the most common complaints by mentees is that the mentor talks at them, rather than engages them in reflective dialogue.

Less common, but equally dysfunctional, is the mentor, who never gives advice and is unable to adapt style to the menteeís needs at the time.

How can you avoid the major pitfalls?

# Preparation

Time spent thinking through what the programmes is meant to achieve and how each aspect of it should be managed, supported and measured will be amply repaid later. Engaging the stakeholder group in the planning identifies barriers to success and occasionally radically changes the nature of the programme. (In one case, feedback from the intended beneficiaries led to turning the programme on its head, so they became the mentors instead!)

# Selection

Not everyone makes a good mentor. Some companies have assumed that the qualities of a manager or leader are such that they should automatically be able to perform the mentorís role. In practice, many managers are unable to escape from the habit of telling and advising.

Many also lack the depth of self-awareness that characterizes an effective mentor. In general, the more convinced someone is that they are a "natural" mentor, the more lethal they are ikely to be.

Good practice avoids any suggestion of "shotgun marriages." It does not give people completely free choice of mentor, because they tend either not to seek enough challenge in the relationship, or to choose someone, upon whose coat tails they can hang. Typically, a programme coordinator offers a selection of possible mentors, from which the mentee chooses. In this way, the mentee feels some ownership of the relationship and how it is to be managed. Selection by mentors has a dismal record and is best avoided.

# Training

The most successful in-company mentoring programmes train both mentors and mentees and at least provide a detailed face-to-face briefing for line managers. The figures are stark. Without any training at all, less than one in three pairings will deliver significant results for either party. Training mentors alone raises the success rate to around 65%. Training both and educating line managers about the programme pushed the success rate above 90%, with both parties reporting substantial gains.

# Process ownership

One reason for training both parties is so that mentees have the expectation and gradually to acquire the confidence and skills to manage the relationship; and so that mentors know how to help them do so. Developmental mentoring, in particular, demands that the mentee helps the mentor to help them, by understanding the process and contributing to it.

# Post-training support

Initial training is rarely enough to give mentors more than a basic level of competence and confidence. Experience of hundreds of programmes in more than three dozen countries shows that they both want and need access to continued expert advice on how to do the role and develop their skills; and that they greatly value the opportunity to share experience with other mentors.

# Measurement

Effective, appropriate measurement, especially at key points in the first 12 months, not only helps keep the programme on track, but also stimulates mentor and mentee to good practice -- for example, reviewing the relationship and what each is gaining from it. Many companies are now adopting a "balanced scorecard" approach to measuring their mentoring programmes.

So whatís the bottom line on mentoring programme and relationships?

Estimates of what proportion of mentoring programmes fail to deliver significant benefits vary widely, depending on how success or failure is assessed. A good working estimate, however, would be that at least 40% of mentoring programmes and relationships do NOT meet one or more of the following criteria:

# # Achievement of a clear business purpose (e.g. improving retention in a target group of mentees by 25% or more)

# # Achievement of most menteesí personal development objectives

# # Learning by most of the mentors

# # Willingness of both parties to engage in mentoring (as mentor or mentee)

Again many mentoring programmes and relationships meet NONE of these.

A positive sign, however, is that more and more HR professionals are becoming

knowledgeable about mentoring and recognise the value of anchoring it firmly in priority business needs. In addition, many of those companies, which have experienced initial failure, are now taking a more considered, mature look at the process and resourcing it properly.


© Clutterbuck Associates, 2002

Dr. David Clutterbuck is senior partner at Clutterbuck Associates, a leading international consultancy in mentoring programme design and support. Co-founder of the European Mentoring Centre (now the European Mentoring and Coaching Council), he is visiting professor at Sheffield Hallam Universityís Mentoring and Coaching Research Group. He is the author or co-author of nearly 50 books, including Everyone needs a Mentor, Mentoring in Action, Learning Alliances, Mentoring Executives and Directors, Implementing Mentoring Schemes, Mentoring and Diversity, Techniques in Coaching and Mentoring (forthcoming) and The Making of a Mentor (forthcoming).

This article was originally published in the December 2002 - vol. 2 Link&Learn, an

E-newsletter published by Linkage, Inc.LinkandLearn@Linkage-Inc.com; www.LinkageInc.com


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