how to build a culture of mentorship on your team

There are huge advantages to establishing a learning culture on your team: When your team members all share a commitment to continuous improvement, you’re not only going to get better and better at what you do (individually and as a group), but you’ll also build a pipeline of people able to grow into higher level of responsibility.

One way to do that is to build a team of mentors. Often when people think about mentorship, they think of formal programs that pair junior employees with more senior ones, but it can be something much broader than that, like ad-hoc mentorship or coaching in specific skills and an overarching dynamic that “we all help each other learn here.”

To build that kind of dynamic, start by talking explicitly with your team about the value in this type of culture and what it looks like. If you want people on your team to invest time in sharing their skills with each other, it’s far more likely to happen if you explicitly tell people that you value that. You might share examples of times when mentoring has paid off, in your own career as well as more broadly.

From there, look for opportunities to connect people to share knowledge. For example, if you’d like an employee to get better at, say, running meetings and you have another team member who’s great at it, connect the two and ask your expert to coach the other. Or, if you have an employee who’s having a hard time dealing with difficult clients, ask an employee who excels at it to share her tricks of the trade, and be available as an ongoing resource to her. Of course, in doing this, make sure that you don’t set up a dynamic where people feel they’re now reporting to peers; you want to make it clear that there’s no shame in getting help from others, which goes back to #1 above.

You also don’t have to confine this just to times when someone is struggling. You can also think about who on your team is especially great at a particular skill and create a structured way for them to share it with others. For example, you could have the person on your team who’s most fluent in a particular piece of software or a type of legislation lead a “lunch and learn” on the topic. (Make sure to carve out time in their workload to take this on, or you risk it getting short shrift or feeling like a burden.)

And as you push these opportunities, be sure to recognize people’s efforts. Even just a simple “I really appreciated the time you spent showing Fergus the new CRM” or “Sarah told me that your advice ahead of her product pitch was incredibly helpful” will reinforce the behavior you want to keep seeing.

Last, make sure that you model what you want to see from others. It’ll be tough to create a mentorship culture if your team doesn’t see you making time to coach and develop people yourself.

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. Brett*

    I’ve always felt that building mentorships is more of a leadership activity than a management activity. With that said, how would you change these strategies if you are acting as an employer leader and not a manager? None of the advice is specific to managers, but some seem a lot more difficult without management authority.

    And how does that change if you have no management support? Or is it even possible then?

    Not so much active opposition, but rather management simply does not see mentorship (or mentorship in your area) as a priority. Is your first task to have the culture of mentorship talk with the different managers involved?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I do think you need this to either come from the manager or have the manager fully bought in — you’re talking about changing a culture, and it’s really hard to do that if the manager isn’t fully on board.

      1. nofelix*

        Also these things take time to execute as you mention in the article, and one generally can’t allocate time without manager authority.

  2. Prismatic Professional*

    The atmosphere of we-help-each-other-in-all-the-things is the best thing about my team. I know our team is one of the best at the Company and it is all because we ask if we have a question and if we don’t know the answer we suggest a different person who might or refer it up to my manager and she takes over from there. No judgement, no muss, no fuss. Manager says we make her job super easy. :-)

    1. AcidMeFlux*

      I’m an EFL teacher, and my best jobs have been based in a kind of mentorship, with peer-review, peer-support, and an established relationship between new teacher-senior teacher. In other jobs where this structure doesn’t exist, I’ve found that many of us carry on this system informally to the point where eventually it does become a more formal part of the job. And best of all -contrary to the bad rep academia has for power trips and backbiting – jobs that involve mentorship and cooperation are much healthier environments.

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