by Catalyst

Mentoring is a simple idea that can have powerful effects. The impact and potential benefits of formal mentoring programs—those in which organizations match mentors and mentees, designate minimum time commitments, monitor relationships, and evaluate the program—can span entire careers. A common misperception about formal mentoring is that it doesn’t work—that it cannot provide the benefits of informal mentoring relationships. But this simply isn’t true. Formal mentoring relationships can be effective. And the good news is that savvy organizations can avoid common pitfalls with the right knowledge and tools.

In Making Mentoring Work, Catalyst debunks the notion that informal mentoring is “good enough” and illustrates that formal mentoring programs are an important talent management strategy. It shows that organizations that embrace formal mentoring gain a competitive advantage by leveraging and tracking those mentoring relationships. This results in the promotion and development of the best talent culled from the full talent pool that is inclusive of all women and men employees, as well as people of color. Ultimately, it enhances a company’s bottom line by putting the best people in charge.

Our research has found that lack of mentoring opportunities is frequently a barrier to advancement for women and people of color. Also, women encounter gender-based barriers that keep them from enjoying the full benefits of informal mentoring. Women often have decreased access to potential mentors, are less successful in finding mentors willing to invest in their career development, and receive fewer benefits from mentoring relationships than men do.

Talented employees with decreased access to influential mentors often fall behind. Women, women of color, and men of color are especially vulnerable. Senior leaders—individuals whose experiences and positions make them a source of sage advice and introductions to influential others—often choose to mentor those who “look like” themselves. And because white men dominate top positions in most organizations, women and people of color lose out.

Formal mentoring programs can redress the lack of naturally occurring informal relationships. Proper design and implementation make them effective. Success results when mentoring is tied directly to an organization’s business needs and assessed through a structured system of metrics that the organization identifies and develops based on its particular requirements. For example, assessing the diversity of individuals in mentoring pairs will help organizations ensure that a greater number of pairs benefit from diverse perspectives. Metrics can and should be gathered from a variety of sources, including employee surveys, interviews, and focus groups.

While the concept of formal mentoring is not new, the ways in which smart companies conceptualize, track, and leverage these programs is constantly evolving. Utilizing formal mentoring programs to help employees gain job competencies, expose them to others in the organization, or help prepare them for expanded job responsibilities can improve employees’ satisfaction and the organization’s bench strength. By ensuring that career development offerings include mentoring efforts, practitioners can better leverage these important workplace relationships. The bottom line is that smart companies cannot afford to lose talent and thus cannot risk leaving mentoring to chance.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and more than 400 preeminent corporations as members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.

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