Lessons Learned From the Front Lines of Mentoring
By Mildred Hastbacka
Innovators & Entrepreneurs, July 2021
Start a social media conversation thread about mentoring, and the replies from those in the working world will get your attention. At a high level, the responses are remarkably similar across geographies, types of business, professions, genders, age, and years of experience.
Many actuarial professionals know what “mentoring” is but their experiences of it in practice are often unsatisfying: mentoring can seem impersonal, unofficial, casual, perfunctory, ineffective, or simply absent.
What’s also often missing from mentoring is the “how”—as in, “how to do it right.” I have been mentored and been a mentor during the entire span of my working life in both large and small companies. Based on that cumulative and varied experience, I can say that mentoring done right is a management activity that yields noticeably higher levels of management and employee satisfaction, engagement, contribution, and productivity.
Here are seven lessons I’ve learned from the front lines of mentoring on how to do it right:
- Mentoring is a management activity, not just a management “responsibility.” A mentor proactively and directly interacts with staff being mentored. If you are a mentor and your mentoring activities appear at least twice a week on your calendar, you’re doing it right.
- New staff being mentored should be assigned a “real” project as soon as they join the work unit. The new staff as well as the mentor need to quickly develop a sense of where and how the mentee can contribute to projects that matter. If the mentee’s project is important enough to show up on the monthly or quarterly general management review agenda, you’re doing it right.
- Mentors should schedule a weekly project review meeting for each project in which the mentored staff participate. Ask that the new staff prepare written weekly summaries in advance of the review meeting. The entire project team, as well as the new staff, benefit from this discipline of preparing written summaries in advance. If your mentee pro-actively contributes to the review meeting discussion and development of “next step” action plans, you’re doing it right.
- Mentors should introduce the new staff member with established staff members who can serve as resources for questions related to the key support tasks of daily life at the office/lab/shop. Some examples of these key support tasks include timecard practices, ISO quality procedures, purchasing procedures, and, equally importantly, the “unwritten” rules of life in the work unit and in the company. Check back with the mentee to learn if there are any other procedures that need to be covered. If resources are available and in place for the mentee to tap, you’re doing it right.
- Mentors should set up regular one-to-one “touch base” meetings not associated with performance evaluation activities. These “touch base” meetings should be office-based but without a formal agenda: their purpose is to allow time for the mentor/manager to discuss company-related topics not necessarily connected with ongoing projects—and for the mentee to do the same. Formal performance evaluation discussions are usually limited in scope and necessarily backward looking, i.e., focused on specific work already performed. The more free-ranging conversations in a touch base meeting provide the opportunity for mentor managers to introduce forward-looking topics such as changing market or industry dynamics and the company’s planned responses to them. If you’re having touch base meetings at least once per week in the first three to four months of the mentee’s employment, you’re doing it right.
- Mentors should treat mentored staff as adults, even if they are “junior” staff based on age or experience. Mentored staff join your company to contribute and they want to contribute to the real project to which they’ve been assigned. If the mentee is surprised that they are successfully doing more advanced work or exercising more responsibility than they expected, then you’re doing it right.
- Both the mentor and the mentee should recognize and utilize the good will that usually exists among the more experienced staff toward new, less experienced staff members. As the need arises, the manager/mentor should identify other more senior staff who can serve as a resource for project-specific issues that arise during the course of the work. For mentees, senior staff input can help get projects “unstuck.” For senior staff, having a mentee succeed after following their guidance is gratifying. Watch for indications that mentees are engaging with senior staff, even if informally at coffee or in the office. If you see that engagement, especially on a regular basis, you’re doing it right.
One Final Lesson Learned
From my conversations with mentors over the years and right up to the present, there is one more lesson learned: Mentors report that mentoring is one of the most rewarding experiences of their professional and personal lives. There is a “feel-good” feeling that results from successful mentoring—one that isn’t duplicated by any other management or training activity. Perhaps you, as a mentor manager reading this post, have experienced this feeling already. If so, then you’ve done it right!
Mildred Hastbacka, Ph.D., is the author of “Channeling Wisdom: A Practitioner's Guide to Effective Mentoring in the Workplace.” As founder and managing member of Prakteka LLC, a business-focused technology consulting company, she has more than 30 years of industrial experience in business management, marketing, commercial development, manufacturing technical support, and product and process research and development at corporate and divisional levels. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/mildred-h-b1b6715