What’s new in the world of mentoring

Published: 12/08/2014

Disrupting Mentoring through Personal Advisory Boards

Innovation Excellence, by Ilene Fischer

The World of Mentoring is Changing

The classic model of mentorship, in which a more senior person helps guide the career of a more junior organizational member by assisting in that person’s personal and professional development has been disrupted. And it’s about time. Mentoring is a hierarchical model, which has worked well for a long time, yet now we are in an age of the social enterprise and distributed technology, which has enabled a whole new approach.

The word “mentor” dates back to Homer’s Odyssey in which the hero Odysseus, upon setting off to war, entrusts his son to his faithful friend Mentor to provide guidance for the son in the father’s absence. Thanks to the popularity of this 2800-year-old epic poem, mentor in English usage has come to mean a more experienced person who acts as a wise counselor, trusted friend, or teacher.

The traditional mentoring relationship—dyadic (one-to-one), between a senior person and a junior protégé—worked fine in the past. As Monica Higgins and Kathy Kram report in “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work: A Developmental Network Perspective”:

Studies have shown that [a traditional mentoring] relationship is related to enhanced career development… career progress…higher rates of promotion and total compensation…career satisfaction and clarity of professional identity and sense of competence.1

But Higgins and Kram—and many other researchers—recognize that there are many limitations to that model in modern business. Here are several:

First, the hierarchical assumptions of that model don’t apply to many businesses today. The rapid spread of digital technology has boosted the stock of knowledge workers who possess specific, leading-edge technical skills rather than general, wide-ranging competencies more characteristic of senior leaders. Access to those knowledge workers—who are younger and less experienced than traditional mentors, yet more up-to-date on the latest technological developments—is highly valued in organizations today. And most of these workers are not found in management.

Second, as businesses expand and collaborate with other businesses—through joint ventures, outsourcing, etc.—a protégé’s work is likely to cross organizational boundaries, requiring developmental assistance from outside the immediate organization. Likewise, as organizations themselves are restructured—through resizing, mergers, acquisitions, etc.—a protégé can’t rely on one mentor being around for the long-term.

Third, the world of work has shifted dramatically in the last decade and people are communicating in networked ways through the immediacy of digital technology. People are connecting with a multiplicity of associates (sometimes several “degrees” removed) through social media and are becoming accustomed to getting information and even social support from many sources digitally.

Fourth, some mentoring relationships are “arranged” by a company’s mentoring program. Such “forced marriages” often do not breed the same positive chemistry as a relationship chosen by the protégé. The mentor is likely to be a better fit if the protégé takes the initiative to find the mentor.

Finally, as organizations have become more diverse, one mentor is unlikely to have the knowledge and experience to relate to a wide range of goals in a variety of situations. To put it simply: one person can’t know everything you need to know,

All of this argues for a different system of mentorship—a “developmental network”. With this approach, a protégé can have a network of advisors. Some relationships may be long-lasting; others may be temporary and ad hoc. Such a network can provide an assortment of perspectives and skills for the protégé, across organizational boundaries. Research has shown that this is more effective than one-to-one mentorship. Also, each advisor can build on the next advisor’s perspective. In this model rich learning takes place among the advisors as well as between the advisor and advisee.

One report neatly summarizes four salient advantages of people having multiple mentors:

1. They get multiple points of view, for both day-to-day decisions and longer-term strategies.
2. They have an increased likelihood that at least one mentor has faced a situation similar to the one the protégé is facing.
3. Their advisors have different areas of expertise for different development needs (one for career strategy, one for leadership skills, one for political savvy, etc.).
4. They have a higher probability that at least one will be available at a critical time. 2

Enter WomenLead

WomenLead was created to disrupt the traditional mentorship by offering a social-network-based Personal Advisory Board model™.

This many-to-one Personal Advisory Board™ combines the power of the social network with tools for advancement, providing members with relevant and valuable content to enrich learning and development—accelerating women’s development as leaders and thus building a pipeline of talented women who can rise to the top of their organizations. The women on their personal advisory boards get to know them, their strengths, and their challenges as they bring a collective wisdom to bear on issues of concern to the women they support.

This Personal Advisory Board™ assumes that everyone has a contribution to make, junior people and senior people. With a group of advisors at her fingertips a woman leader can receive multiple perspectives on a goal or a topic. In fact advisors build on each other’s advice and perspectives and learn from each other.

WomenLEAD builds on the “always online everywhere” culture, in which people need advice and support for what they need when they need it. That advice can be offered in three-to-ten minutes of micro-advising. Face-to-face contact is not required, but can be included. More extensive support is available depending on the needs of the “advisee.”

What are the responses so far? WomenLEAD has led live simulations of the Personal Advisory Board to test the notion of—and gather data on—the value of using an advisory board. In 2014 WomenLead simulated a live Personal Advisory Board™ at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference and again at the Bay Path College Women’s Leadership Conference. Participants reported that they…

• Benefited from the multiple and diverse perspectives they gained from a group of
• Gained insights from a group of advisors in less time than from one advisor.
• Welcomed the idea of having 24/7 access to the advisory board.
• Received as much value from being an advisor as they received from being an advisee.

What’s at Stake

In the US, 50% of entry-level professional workers are women, yet women comprise only 14% of executives. Among Fortune 500 companies they make up 4.2%.

This is a problem—and an opportunity. The Goldman Sachs Global Market Initiative report, “Giving Credit Where Credit is Due” states:

Our research has also shown that, as female labor participation rates rise, countries can reap the benefit of a “double dividend” as women are more likely than men to use their earnings and increased bargaining power to buy goods and services that improve the family’s welfare. This has the potential to create a virtuous cycle, as women’s spending supports the development of human capital, which in turn will fuel economic growth in the years ahead.3

By some estimates, increasing women’s participation in the workforce would increase the GDP in the US could by 9%—and by 13% In Europe and 16% in Japan. According to a McKinsey study, when women went from holding 37% of all US jobs to nearly 48% over the last 40 years, the productivity gains associated with this increase accounted for approximately 25% of our current GDP.4



Focusing on the specific financial benefit for the companies themselves, there is a growing body of evidence that promoting women to senior and executive levels increases the financial performance of those firms. According to Catalyst, when women ascend to executive ranks and corporate boards they increase their companies’ Return on Equity by 53 to 84%. 5 Also, in their research of hi-tech start-ups, Illuminate Ventures concludes, “Organizations that are the most inclusive of women in top management achieve 35% higher ROE and 34% better total return to shareholders versus their peers.” They achieve even higher returns “where innovation is key.”6

Yet research from the Harvard Business Review’s “Athena Factor” report shows that 52% of women in STEM careers leave their workplace mid-career.7  The factors in this exodus including feeling isolated, dealing with a macho culture, not having a network of support, feeling extreme work pressures, having an unclear career path, and lack of mentors, role models, and sponsors. It costs companies $100k on average to replace each mid-career woman! With every woman who leaves mid-career the odds of closing the gender gap at the top of an organization diminishes.

It’s no wonder that attracting, retaining, and developing women as leaders is a top of mind—and bottom line—concern to CEOs, EVPs, CDOs, and HR departments.

But the solution has become obvious: provide women with the support they need. Some of the most forward thinking Global 500 companies see this as a critical issue to address. Their strategies for women’s initiatives include leadership development specifically geared for women and collaborative cross-company mentoring targeted to women.

The Personal Advisory Board™ accomplishes this and sets a new model for mentoring in today’s world. While we’re starting with women, we believe everyone in today’s workplace can benefit from an enterprise, social, distributed approach.

1. http://www.bu.edu/sph/files/2012/01/Higgins-Kram_Reconceptualizing-Mentoring-at-Work-A-Developmental-Network-Perspective.pdf, page 265
2. Adapted from: http://leadership-effect.com/articles/benefits-of-multiple-mentors/
3. http://www.goldmansachs.com/our-thinking/investing-in-women/gmi-report-pdf.pdf
6. http://www.illuminate.com/whitepaper/


5 mentor mistakes to avoid

In your quest to find your own Mr. Miyagi and develop the perfect mentoring relationship, avoid these five common mistakes.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, FORTUNE, May 2, 2014

Socrates and Plato. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey. Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. Bob Noyce and Steve Jobs.

Who wouldn’t benefit from a wise mentor? The right one can make a huge difference in your career. You know this: Some 96% of executives view mentoring as an important development tool, according to Lois Zachary, author of The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships.

“There are lots of benefits to mentoring,” says Zachary. “A mentor can help connect you to other networks and can expose you to different ideas, different people who you otherwise would never have that opportunity for.”

In your quest to find your own Mr. Miyagi and develop the perfect mentoring relationship, avoid these five common mistakes.

1. Having a mentor just like you

It may be comfortable to develop a relationship with a mentor with a background similar to yours. That’s not the way to grow. Instead, seek out a mentor with a different experience and perspective, one who can help you identify blind spots.

“A lot of mentors of women will be men. A lot of mentors of people of color will be white people because you have to look at who has the power and experience. It’s still going to be a lot of older white men,” says Michael Melcher, an executive coach with the firm Next Step Partners. “Don’t think the only person who should mentor you is somebody who looks exactly like you. It’s too limiting and often those people are way oversubscribed.”

When technology executive Sharon Meers, co-author of Getting to 50/50, was a vice president at Goldman Sachs, the women’s network discovered that all the male vice presidents were playing basketball with the senior leaders. They asked the partners to create a program that would match women with senior men as mentors. A number of women who participated advanced to become managing directors.

“It was amazing,” Meers recalls. “The guys who participated were partners who really cared about advancing women. The women who participated were high potential. You weren’t dealing with performance problems.”

Similarly, your mentors shouldn’t all be former supervisors. Pick people who have exposure to a different business area or even those in a different company or sector of your industry.

2. Asking for general help

A classic mistake in seeking a mentor is to ask a senior executive to lunch and spend the time aimlessly talking, without knowing what kind of help you need. The more specific and targeted your goal, the better.

At first, you may not know where you need to grow or develop, but that can be part of the process. Once you identify areas of weakness, pick mentors who can help you in a specific area, perhaps management, communication, or presentations.

When you do get that specific advice, follow-up with your mentor to share the outcome. People like to know that their advice helped. If you end up departing from your mentor’s advice, be honest about that too.

“The mentor’s advice is not always going to be good, but if it’s not they need to understand why, ” Meers says. “The answer can’t be, ‘I never tried.’ “

3. Wasting time

When you ask someone to give you advice, you owe the courtesy of respecting their time and making the most of it. That means coming to each lunch or coffee meeting with a clear agenda in mind, being efficient in your conversation and following up afterward. Play an active role in the relationship.

“The time is the biggest issue and the commitment. It is a big commitment,” says Roz Alford, principal of ASAP, an IT solutions company. “There has to be accountability on both sides.”

You should set the agenda for meetings, follow-up in between, and define the relationship. “You take your goals in a series of conversations and make them very specific and targeted,” Zachary says. “What you’re really talking about is how you’re going to develop and grow.”

Your mentor doesn’t have all the answers but can help guide you to find them yourself. In other words, don’t just have lunch with someone once a quarter and call her your mentor.

4. Thinking it’s a one-way relationship

One of the most common misconceptions in mentoring is that it’s a transaction or a one-direction relationship. Mentors can learn a lot from the people they advise.

“I feel like I get at least as much as I give,” says Jodi Allen, a marketing and brand operations vice president at Procter & Gamble Co. who enjoys discussing developments in mobile tech and social media with people she mentors. “They give me a huge amount of energy. They’re young and ambitious and so much more skilled than I was at that point in my life.”

5. Forcing the relationship

It’s tempting to rush right out and ask your professional hero to be your mentor. That would be a mistake. Such a relationship has to develop naturally.

First of all, some people hate to be explicitly asked to be a mentor. Get to know someone before you pop the question, if indeed you need to ask outright.

“It has to be such an organic thing that I feel uncomfortable asking,” says Nicole Loftus, CEO of marketing firm Hit Big. She says her mentor relationships generally develop out of lunch meetings or conversations.

When looking for a mentor, ask your contacts and colleagues for someone with the kind of industry expertise, personal characteristics, or connections that you’re seeking. “You have to go out and be able to say to people, ‘I want to learn x, y, and z and here are my priorities,’ ” says Zachary, “It’s much easier to get a good answer from someone other than saying, ‘I’m looking for a mentor, who do you know?’ “

Melcher agrees. “You have to cast a wide net,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘Will you be my mentor?’ you could say, ‘I have really enjoyed meeting you. I’ve learned so much from this conversation. I’d like to reach out to you again in a few months.’ “

It may help to take the pressure off to realize that you’ll have multiple mentors at different points in your career, perhaps some of them even simultaneously. One person may mentor you about your work-life balance, while another introduces you to important potential customers.

“It’s not just one mentor for life,” Zachary says.

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