Mentoring denotes a relationship between a more experienced person—the mentor—and a less experienced person—the protégé. The mentor's role is to guide, instruct, encourage, and correct the protégé. The protégé should be willing to listen to instruction and constructive criticism, and should also feel as though the mentor is concerned with his/her welfare. Mentor/protégé relationships are less structured and more personal than traditional teacher/student situations.
In many large corporations, formal systems of mentoring have been established in recent years. They are designed to quickly involve new employees in the work at hand, and to strengthen the work force in much the same way that other teambuilding strategies are designed to do. These systems pair experienced workers exhibiting (or needing to hone) strong leadership skills with new employees not yet acquainted with the nuances of the corporation, the work at hand, and/or their potential within the framework of the company.
But while mentoring is perhaps most closely associated with large corporate settings, the practice can be effectively utilized by small businesses as well. Small business owners themselves can become involved in mentoring relationships, on either the mentor or the protégé side. Entrepreneurs may seek out business owners or executives with more experience in certain areas, and approach them about beginning a mentoring relationship. Because this kind of approach acknowledges success, experience, and market savvy, a potential mentor will likely be flattered and appreciate the drive and initiative of the potential protégé. In other instances, more experienced small business owners may wish to initiate mentor/protégé relationships from the mentor angle, spurred by philanthropic instincts or a wish to strengthen the skills and knowledge of other people within his or her organization. These mentoring systems can be loosely or formally structured, either determined by the owner or simply encouraged by the owner and initiated by employees. In either case, attempts should be made to insure both diversity in the workplace, which can be strengthened by mentoring relationships, and a reasonable fit.
Protégés and mentors should feel relatively comfortable together, as the relationship ideally is one of trust and mutual growth. Mentors should not be expected to become drill sergeants or police; the mentor relationship is not intended to be one of management exerting its will over young or inexperienced employees. Rather, the relationship should reduce anxiety by clearly defining goals and boundaries, and should increase productivity as a result.
Small business owners seeking mentors have several structured alternatives to choose from. For example, the Small Business Administration can put potential protégés into contact with some groups. In addition, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) includes mentoring among its various offerings.
Mentoring relationships can be beneficial to all parties. Any mentoring situation requires an investment of time, experience, and trust. But these investments will be rewarded in a strong tie between colleagues and the deepened experience of not just the protégé, but also the mentor.
Mentors may receive great satisfaction from their experience with protégés. They feel respected and appreciated for their knowledge and skill. And mentors can become more invested in their work as a result: they have personal relationships to foster in the business setting, and they feel that the owner trusts and respects their judgment and talents. And as role models, mentors may even more closely evaluate their own performances and become more productive in their own business dealings and duties.
The protégé, whether a new employee of a business or a new entrepreneur, will benefit from the transfer of knowledge and know-how that can be passed on by a mentor of greater experience. Perhaps the greatest benefit is being able to learn from other people's mistakes; a mentor can warn of pitfalls as yet unfore-seen by the protégé, saving the time and the pain of having to make those mistakes in order to know they exist.
An employee who is a protégé also benefits by having a mentor trained in the management of a business, who can pass along the true meanings behind policy decisions, and the unwritten rules of the workplace. The mentoring relationship can make the transition into productive, comfortable employee a much smoother one; the protégés will quickly learn what is expected from them, their place within the framework of the business, and the responsibilities of other departments and personnel within the workplace. Career opportunities and areas of improvement can both be sensitively illustrated by a mentor, and transitions within the company and changes of business practice can be made less stressful with suitable guidance.
The business owner benefits from the mentor/protégé relationship within their business in some very real ways. New employees can be thoroughly trained in technical aspects of the work by a mentor, resulting in employees who move quickly through the learning curve and into productive work. Business owners are able to practice more hands-off management of companies which have strong, capable mentors; and mentoring relationships have also been shown to promote employee satisfaction, leading to decreased turnover in the workforce and higher production rates.
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