Laura Townson Iversoft COO on the importance of quality mentorship on growing and retaining strong and engaged teams
What’s the difference between a great job and a mediocre (or even terrible) one?
While there are many factors that contribute to employee satisfaction and retention, engagement and growth opportunities are frequently cited as the most important. In fact, a pre-pandemic study found that up to 85% of employees are not engaged at work. And the biggest reason was management.
I had a boss at an old job who used to tell me to “figure it out” any time I had a question or was assigned a new task. I felt unsupported and anxious. And, predictably, my performance suffered. This person, who was responsible for guiding me toward success, was setting me up to fail.
But strong mentorship has been pivotal to my career journey. In my first professional job, I was lucky to have two great mentors that encouraged a collaborative approach to problem solving. Because of their support, I learned to be comfortable with failure and to challenge myself to think creatively. They helped me thrive.
These mentors also taught me the importance of fostering new talent. They encouraged me to hire people who were smarter than me, with skills I didn’t have. Why? Because good management isn’t about ego. Your success as a manager is directly tied to the people who report to you. Everyone at a company is equally valuable, because everyone is fulfilling an important need.
Strong leaders are committed to helping their employees grow and succeed. My achievements, including receiving Ottawa’s top forty under 40 earlier this year, are a result of the guidance I have given and received.
But that doesn’t mean that mentorship is easy. It takes hard work and commitment to build a productive mentor/mentee relationship.
Mentoring for Growth, Engagement and Retention
Far more than a buzzword, mentorship is both a leadership strategy and a mindset that can improve employee growth, engagement, and retention. But as crucial as it is to the development of strong companies and teams, mentorship is often misunderstood.
What mentorship is (and what it isn’t)
Mentorship isn’t micromanaging. Positive, productive mentor/mentee relationships are guidance-based. What’s the difference? Well, we’ve all had that annoying boss who looks over our shoulder all day and tries to direct every little detail of our work.
Not only is this style of leadership stressful for the employee, who might feel as though they are constantly under scrutiny, but it is also inefficient. After all, if a leader is spending all day watching one person’s work, how are they able to guide the rest of their team or complete their own tasks?
Strong mentorship is the opposite. Rather than getting caught up in the details, mentorship involves letting employees take on more responsibilities for themselves, while offering strategic guidance and support.
Mentorship is also about learning and growing as a manager. Just because you are in a leadership position doesn’t mean that there isn’t room to improve. Mentorship can help you learn how to better support your mentees and meet their needs.
A few months ago, I injured my ankle. Nothing life-threatening, but severe enough that I was forced to take several weeks to heal and recuperate. At first I was anxious about taking time away from Iversoft, but the situation proved to be a perfect opportunity to help another team members take on more operational responsibilities.
While I was healing, I was able to offer strategic advice and support. Meanwhile, my colleague got the chance to stretch her already advanced skill set into a new area. The end result? She fell even more in love with her role at Iversoft and began to see how she could advance even further with the company. What could have been a disaster turned out to be an opportunity for everyone to see how much she was capable of and the value of her wide-sweeping abilities.
Every person has skills. As a leader, your job is to help employees recognize and grow their unique talents. In the long term, this makes for a team of people with their own specialized (and complimentary) skill sets and expertise. It can also help employees build their confidence and feel a sense of belonging and purpose within your company long term.
Leadership and team development doesn’t have to be high stakes. Mentorship provides growth opportunities with a lower “margin of error” for both mentor and employee. The trick is a guidance-based approach that supports the employee while allowing them space to learn and grow.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Guidance-based mentorship provides both mentors and mentees with a safe, supportive environment to try new things. Mentors can help guide employees through mistakes in low-stakes situations, so they can learn where they went wrong and develop problem solving and independence.
Take this as an opportunity to learn more about your employee. What do they excel at? What tasks do they complete quickly and eagerly? This not only gives you a chance to see where your mentee’s skills lie, it also allows the employee to better understand themselves and their own career goals.
Before becoming COO, I was hired at Iversoft as a Studio Director. While I didn’t have a dedicated mentor at the company, I did have close bi-weekly meetings with a colleague at another organization where we helped one another develop different areas of our skill sets. For example, I assisted my colleague with the social and operational side of his position while he helped me understand more about the analytical and technical side of running a team. As I learned more about the company, and myself, I realized that there was space at Iversoft for me to grow into an operations role.
By building up my skill set in a supportive environment, I came to see what I wanted my career journey to look like. I wrote the job description for the role that I knew the company needed — one that I wanted to grow into and knew I would excel at. I then had an open discussion with leadership about the company’s long term, strategic needs — and where I fit into them.
Mentorship allows an employee to gain keen insights into the company from a different level and perspective. This encourages self-directed growth, and motivates the employee to expand their skills and knowledge not just for themselves, but for the organization.
At Iversoft, we believe that a good idea can come from anywhere! A different perspective can provide fresh insight for the company too. When we encourage employees to learn, grow, and share their ideas, we open our organization up to new insights that can improve existing processes.
Mentoring existing employees and fostering their growth can also benefit a company’s bottom line. A 2017 study found that stagnation and a lack of growth opportunities within a company was one of the top causes of employee turnover. Employees are more likely to stay with a company if they see clear opportunities for growth and advancement.
Onboarding new employees can be both expensive and time-consuming. On average, it is more cost effective to train an existing employee to grow into a role than it is to interview and hire someone new. Not only do external hires generally demand a higher starting salary than internal hires, but replacing an existing employee can cost companies up to 33% of an employee’s salary. Yikes.
So, if mentorship is so great, why is it so rare?
A plethora of misinformation and misconceptions skew the way that people view mentorship, leading them to overlook one of the best strategies out there for growing and keeping strong employees.
Unfortunately, many leaders view mentorship as a waste of time and resources. Guidance-based mentorship requires thoughtfulness, patience, and trust. And, it means learning to see your employees as unique individuals, rather than merely a warm body at a desk.
Common Mentorship Blunders
There’s a lot of misunderstanding out there about mentorship, and both mentors and employees can make mistakes. Usually, these errors come down to a lack of insight into the broader purpose of a mentorship relationship.
For example, many mentees (particularly young graduates and junior professionals) see mentors as an opportunity for a “leg-up” into a career they want or a job at a specific company. But mentorship is about growth, skill development, and guidance—not job placement!
It is unwise, and unhelpful, to scout for mentors as a means to a gig. Mentors often lack the power and influence to get their mentees a job directly, which can lead to major disappointment if that’s the only goal the mentee has in mind. It also misses the point. Mentorship is not a one-way, transactional relationship or career shortcut, but an opportunity to learn more about yourself and try new things in a safe, supportive environment.
Mentorship is an investment. It takes valuable time and effort from multiple parties. A mentor must carve out time for the mentee, but the mentee must also reduce their capacity in other areas to create enough space to learn, grow, experiment, and make mistakes.
But setting aside a couple hours a week for coffee with your mentee isn’t enough. It’s easy to “phone it in” as a mentor by not providing the real, tangible tools that your mentee needs to succeed. Tools like connections to resources for learning and advancement, networking opportunities, and supportive, constructive feedback on a mentee’s work are essential.
Remember that mentorship is also about your growth as a leader. As a mentor, you are sharpening your interpersonal and managerial skills. You’re also helping to foster a positive work environment and identifying gaps or room for growth in your company, job, and industry.
Like any relationship, mentorship is reciprocal. Mentees can “phone it in” too — by not doing their research, not understanding their own goals, or treating mentorship like a job search. When both parties fail to engage fully in the mentorship relationship, the result is a series of situations designed for failure: the mentee cannot provide a clear direction, and the mentor is not providing the tools or guidance necessary for growth. This can lead to a strained and frustrating mentor-mentee relationship that is costly and unproductive.
The goal is skill development, on both sides. It’s all about flipping your perspective and being transparent with your mentee about what you are bringing to the table. What can you teach your mentee about your industry? What can your mentee teach you about new platforms, technologies, or cultural trends?
In the long run, learning from each other can bring you both closer to your career goals.
Another common mentorship mistake is undervaluing external mentorship opportunities. Mentoring people outside of your company can be great for your personal development as a leader. It can also be amazing exposure for you and your company, offering a chance to grow both your personal brand and the company’s brand simultaneously.
External mentorship opportunities are a great way to practice out-of-the-box thinking. They force you to get out of your industry and comfort zone, providing insight into how other industries or organizations are approaching certain topics. It’s also a great way to give back and use your skills in a meaningful and supportive way.
Building a Quality Mentor/Mentee Relationship
A great mentor/mentee relationship doesn’t just happen overnight. The first step toward avoiding the usual pitfalls is to start with a willingness on both sides to fully engage in the mentorship journey. For mentors, this means being willing to actually show up and guide your mentee. It’s important to have the time and resources necessary to support your mentee.
For mentees, it means having a clear goal and trajectory. While the mentee might not know how to get there, it’s important to have some kind of destination in mind. Mentees should know what they want and have started to think about what skills they are interested in developing further.
The mentor’s job is to listen to the mentee. What are their goals and aspirations? What skills, resources, and information can you give them that will help them? Remember that mentorship isn’t about your ego —it’s about investing time into someone else’s growth.
- Don’t promise something you can’t follow through on. Mentorship is a commitment, involving time, energy, and other resources.
- Know yourself. Determine if you are really the best fit for the potential mentee. If the mentee is looking to develop a skill that isn’t your strong suit, you owe it to them to be honest and realistic about what areas you can support them in.
- It’s okay to say no! If you have to turn down a potential mentee, consider other resources or connections you can offer. Do you know someone else who could help this person?
- Embrace soft skills. You might be able to help build an employee’s interpersonal, organizational, or leadership skill set in ways that will benefit them in their goals, even if you can’t help them with specific technical skills.
- Don’t underestimate the power of networking. Connecting with other professionals, either online or at in-person industry events, can be a great way to help your mentee develop interpersonal skills, as well as meet other potential mentors within your industry.
The mentee’s job is to have a clear goal. A mentorship relationship works best when the mentee knows what they want to get out of it.
- Research the person you want as a mentor and know how your goals and interests intersect with this person’s experience.
- Speak up! A mentee who has the confidence to give their mentor feedback is most likely to get what they want out of the relationship.
- Take charge. Mentorship is a mutually guided process; it isn’t just the mentor’s job to figure out what the next step is, the mentee is also responsible for directing the relationship toward their goals.
Stop sleeping on mentorship. A guidance-based, supportive mentor/mentee relationship doesn’t just help your employee develop new skills, it can also reduce turnover and save your company major cash.
Building a productive mentorship relationship takes work on both sides, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Your people are your company’s number one asset. A mentorship relationship can help them build the skills and confidence they need to achieve their goals.
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