Keeping Great People with Three Kinds of Mentors

Who is your mentor?  The follow article from HBR is a terrific reminder that mentorship is alive, well and necessary...

To attract and retain great people, several things need to coalesce. From the extrinsic reward of a salary to the more nuanced (and more important) intrinsic reward of people feeling that they have a meaningful role, it requires thought and a proactive approach to keep talent once you've got it.

One of the most critical elements in retaining great people is effective mentoring. But what does that really mean? The word "mentoring" is too general to capture the specifics of what people need through the different stages of a career. It is akin to saying that people need to be educated — and then implementing a teaching curriculum that is the same every year for everyone. Like education, mentorship requires different things at different stages, including different types of skills and advice, and different types of teachers and learning styles.

Few firms think as carefully about mentorship as they should. So for most companies, a wake-up call on the basics of mentorship is in order. The first step, of course, is just having mentorship as part of your people development strategy. This does not need to be a complex, bureaucratic HR-department process. It should be something people know is embraced as part of the ethos of a firm. It can start simply by having existing employees volunteer to be mentors to newer staff members. And while it can and probably should be communicated out to staff and emphasized top down from leaders, people will believe it more when it is a "show, don't tell" process.

Mentorship, delivered in an authentic manner, shows that you care about employees' professional progression. This basic "I care about you" culture is the foundation for effective mentorship. It requires knowing a mentee's ambitions and capabilities, their successes and challenges towards, and the ways you can help push their ball forward. I've already written about how the best mentors are able to get a mentee snap-shot in five questions. But to put in place a more systematic and thoughtful mentorship program across any size company, it is helpful to differentiate among three types of mentoring:

1. Buddy / Peer Mentoring
2. Career Mentoring
3. Life Mentoring

1. Buddy / Peer Mentors This is the starting point for mentoring, where it is less about mentorship and more about an apprenticeship. During the entry-level, early stages of a career, or when "on-boarding" to a new job, what really benefits someone is a "buddy" or peer-based mentor who can help one get up the learning curve faster. This type of peer mentor is focused on helping with specific skills and basic organizational practices of "this is how it is done here." This can happen to some extent informally, through social and professional networks online and offline. But assigning a buddy day one on someone's new job is a great "I care" practice. This is a high frequency mentor who interacts as needed in those first couple of years.

2. Career Mentors After the initial period at a workplace, employees need to have someone who is senior to them to serve as a career advisor and internal advocate. A career mentor should help reinforce how the mentee's job contributions fit into the bigger picture and purpose of the firm. People don't contextualize the purpose of one's career enough. When people feel that they understand their current role, its impact and where it can take them next in a company, it leads to higher levels of satisfaction and motivation. Note that a career mentor is not necessarily the manager who may be doing the mentee's performance evaluation reviews. In fact, it may be better if it is not. Think of your most respected managers and rising stars — your real people people — who enjoy and are willing to spend the extra time to provide counsel as go to career mentors. In a career mentor, an employee should feel that they have an "I've got your back" advocate and advisor inside the company. Career mentors should look to meet with their mentee semi-annually or quarterly.

3. Life Mentors These may be the most important mentors to have. They can be people inside the mentee's company, but also outside. As people reach mid- and senior stages of their careers, they need to have someone in whom they can confide without feeling that there is any bias. This is someone who can be a periodic sounding board when one is faced with a difficult career challenge, or when is considering changing jobs. A company's alumni network is often a good place for life mentors, but employees should be encouraged to find these mentors outside of a firm's affiliation as well. The senior folks at a company should make it a part of their objectives to be a life mentor to rising stars, and to put younger associates in situations where they can meet some of the firm's institutional relationship network. Most of the better strategic consulting firms do a decent job of this as they make regular efforts to expose current employees to their firm's alumni and other relations. Retention would likely go up in many companies if employers demonstrated that they openly and fearlessly tried to do what is best for the employee — that they saw their employees as being as important as their customers. Companies should want to do what is best for their employees even if that means helping look for a job elsewhere. Life mentors do not supplant career mentors or peer mentors (and in some cases may be one and the same), but they are there to impart career wisdom. And whatever your employer does, you should look for at least one life mentor (if not a small council of them), and ideally set an annual dinner meeting with her, him, or them.

Beyond this mentoring taxonomy, there are many other aspects of mentoring, people development, and retention that could fill a book. In future blog posts, I'll touch on other key people themes and strategies. But start by making mentoring a priority in your company culture, and consider this simple three-part structure to help match the right mentorship to the right stage of professional development. 

Anthony Tjan




Anthony Tjan is CEO, Managing Partner and Founder of the venture capital firm Cue Ball. An entrepreneur, investor, and senior advisor, Tjan has become a recognized business builder.