The Importance of Mentoring

Yogi Berra once famously said of Bill Dickey, “Bill is learning me his experience.”

I have the great privilege of being a mentor to about a half dozen people throughout the US and Canada. Of all the many things I do, this is one of the most rewarding.

Mentors have had a phenomenal impact on my life. They have helped shape my career track, instilled confidence, taught me different communication and problem-solving styles, given me a safe outlet to share, learn and grow. I will forever be grateful to people like Gerry Lalonde, Barbara Rahder, Noreen Dunphy and John Whitesell. (Prior to John and I becoming business partners, he mentored me for the better part of 10 years.)

We need more mentors – and not just because it helps those who receive the mentoring. Many studies show that it improves retention (see Ragins, Gibb, Lewis). Other studies demonstrate that it increases diversity and gender equity in work environments (see Henford, Tennent). The evidence is also clear that it helps create both leaders and managers.

Consider some of these facts:

  • A meta-study by Blanchard et al found over 90% of organizations that encourage mentorship have more positive outcomes
  • A 2006 study by Gartner showed people who received mentoring were 5 times more likely to improve their salary.
  • The same Gartner study also showed that Mentors were 6 times more likely to advance in their careers and Mentees were 5 times more likely to advance in their careers compared to people not involved in being a mentor or receiving mentoring.
  • A survey of 60 Fortune 500 companies showed that those who did not receiving mentoring were twice as likely to quit as those that receiving mentoring.
  • A separate study of Fortune 500 CEOs showed that 75% of the CEOs listed mentoring as one of the three top critical factors for their career success.
  • A 1999 study called Emerging Workforce demonstrated that organizations with mentoring programs had much better performance.
  • From a gender perspective, another study showed that 91% of female executives had a mentor at some point in their life, with four out of five indicating the mentorship was instrumental in their success.
  • Amongst young people, a study called “Mentoring: A Promising Strategy for Development” showed that people who were mentored were better communicators and had more positive societal attitudes.
  • A Ford Foundation study showed that people who are mentored are much more likely to be involved in voluntary community service.

I separate mentorship from coaching because I don’t see it as necessarily directly related to projects or tasks that I am working on, nor do I think it has to be deficiency-based, and I definitely don’t think the mentor is laying out a game plan.  Coaching can be important, but it is a different type of relationship than mentoring in my opinion.

And I separate mentoring from counseling or therapy, because I don’t think it has the same qualities as a therapeutic relationship (though a mentoring session can be revealing).

I also separate it from supervision. While some of the supervisors I have had in my life have had a positive influence, I wouldn’t consider any of them mentors because there was always a power-dynamic that could potentially be at play. Mentorship has been effective for me when it is a safe place to explore ideas and feelings without wondering if it would negatively impact another person’s perception of my job performance.

So what is mentorship to me?

First off, I see it as a developmental partnership. “Developmental” as in growth process. “Partnership” as in joint interest and commitment. When mentorship has been successful in my life there has been a willingness to grow on my part and there has been another person who has made the commitment to engage with me for that growth. The mentee and the mentor both get something out of it.

Secondly, I don’t see mentors as having all of the answers to everything. Sure there can be technical knowledge shared in some mentoring relationships. However, the great value of mentorship I see is in imparting different ways of thinking, knowing, processing, reacting, researching, analyzing, synthesizing, feeling… And this comes from their experience and ability to empathize.

Thirdly, as previously mentioned, I see mentorship relationships as a safe place. In mentorship you get the insights and thoughts of another trusted person while exploring ideas, feelings, perspectives, problems and situations. Mentorship only works if it is confidential.

Lastly, mentorship is how I think people learn leadership…or at least is how I learned leadership. I think management can be taught in many different settings, but leadership for me has always been learned and explored in a mentorship setting. This doesn’t mean that everyone who has mentorship is going to be a leader, but they can learn leadership which increases their knowledge of how influence occurs.

When I think about impactful mentors in my life there are several characteristics that they share that I try to also embody in my role as a mentor:

  • honesty
  • carving out specific times for mentoring sessions
  • sharing insights
  • never solving problems for the other person
  • providing encouragement
  • offering reading or other resources to look at
  • warm appreciation that mistakes are part of life
  • teaching things like managing ambiguity, unwritten rules of conduct, organizational culture
  • cultivating self-confidence and self-esteem
  • respectfully challenging perceptions or pre-conceived notions
  • not interfering with the direction provided by a supervisor
  • actively listening

While there can be informal or formal mentorship, I favour formal mentorship. I think in formal mentorship arrangements it shows that an organization values mentorship (happens during work time) rather than it being something people have to do in addition to their other work. I think it gives supervisors a sense of comfort that they know there is a mentorship relationship going on (even though they don’t know the content) rather than feeling that someone else is giving their staff direction. I also think a formal mentorship allows for better accountability and tracking of the impact of the mentorship over time.

Different people need different types of mentors. I always valued people outside the organization than within it. Larger organizations may have the value of internal mentors. Smaller organizations can have difficulty finding time to commit to mentorship while also creating the right atmosphere.

Mentorship can take different forms as well. As was the case with John, he mentored me on an ongoing basis for a long period of time. This was a huge investment on his part (for which I will eternally be grateful). Obviously we covered a lot of material over that decade. But it doesn’t always have to be this way.

One of the emerging forms of mentorship that is really taking hold is short-term, goal-oriented mentoring. In this type of mentoring the task is to match up a mentor and mentee for a shorter period of time (usually 1-3 months) to work on specific goals in the mentoring relationship. Whereas a longer term mentorship can be much more organic and free-flowing, in this short-term and goal-oriented approach there is an in-depth understanding on the part of the mentee of what exactly they are looking to explore and then they find the right fit.

E-mentorship – surprise, surprise in the day of quick communication – is also becoming quite popular. This allows the communication flow to occur at a time that is convenient when the mentor and/or mentee have already busy schedules. It can also allow for more thinking and thoughtful response to the material being discussed in the mentoring relationship. E-mentorship can also increase the pool of potential mentors when face to face meetings are not critical. Maintaining confidentiality in the communication chain becomes important though.

So, does your organization value mentorship? Do you encourage your senior staff to become mentors? Do you create an environment where your junior staff are encouraged and supported in finding and having a mentor?

Think about it.

Then do it.


If you want to know more about how your organization can become involved in encouraging mentorship, drop us a line at [email protected]

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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