The importance of mentorship in business

Telecoms entrepreneur, Peter Gbedemah, looks at why mentorship is back in vogue and reflects on the problems organisations face in implementing successful programmes that ensure equality of access

Originating in Homer’s Odyssey, in which the tutor, Mentor, is referred to as a ‘wise and trusted advisor’, mentorship is an ancient concept and one which has recently returned to vogue in the British workplace.

Just recently, the New York Times referred to it as the ‘fabric’ of contemporary culture, and today nearly three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies have some form of employee mentoring programme. But there are also more practical reasons employers should be thinking seriously about mentorship, both in terms of staff retention and development.

Why mentorship

In a 2018 survey from UK recruitment firm, Monster.co.uk, more than one in four UK workers said they wanted a mentor, suggesting that this could become a key requirement for millennial employees, and for employers that are fighting to retain young and talented staff. Almost half (49%) of millennials surveyed for the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2019 said that, if they had a choice, they would quit their current jobs in the next two years.

Mentorship is particularly important for mid-career female staff, as a 2018 FT article reported, quoting  Sue Black, an honorary professor at University College London’s computer science department: ‘It’s then that the extra boost which a good mentor can give you might well keep you on track and stop you looking around for easier options.’

This is especially true in the tech sector – a space I am intimately familiar with having spent nearly a decade in the c-suite of one of Africa’s largest telecoms companies. One of the reasons (but by no means the only one) for the sector’s high rate of attrition is its lack of mentorship support from senior figures.

Implementation issues

Barriers to mentorship range from lack of formal training of mentors to unrealistic expectations on the part of mentees. In 2013, a report by the UK government’s Department for Business Innovation & Skills (now part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) stated that the two biggest obstacles preventing SME employees from adopting mentors is the difficulty of finding suitable mentors and the issues some mentees encounter with relying on a ‘stranger’ for advice.

Many of these difficulties arise (especially within small companies as the government report noted) because mentorship programmes are not properly implemented. There are various models for mentorship, outlined by organisations like the Gatsby Foundation on economic and social development. Each organisation must find the model which works best for them.

Having had the privilege of serving on the board of Junior Africa Achievement Worldwide (JA Africa) for 10 years – a charity dedicated to developing the next generation of African entrepreneurs – I have had the opportunity to travel and meet a number of students, sponsoring a Ghanaian team through JA Africa’s company of the year competition application. I have also learnt that the most successful mentoring programmes tend to follow quite a logical structure.

First, organisations must find the right mentors. This is the foundation of any programme: ineffectual mentors will not be used by their mentees and the programme will never get off the ground. As a result, HR experts suggest mentors need to be found who are willing to give up their time, share skills, are engaged and empathetic.

Second, mentees must be found. The Gatsby Foundation defines the ideal mentees as those who are interested in their learning and development, and willing to seek help and share development needs with their mentor.

At this point, an organisation may want to look into establishing the correct mentorship model between the two parties. More ‘technical’ mentorship models (where a mentor imparts knowledge to their mentee) are better suited to working environments where learning set skills are important for an employee’s career development, such as an engineering plant. A more mutualistic style of mentorship where both mentor and mentee look to learn from one another is perhaps more characteristic of a creative working environment, or one where colleagues are broadly equal to one another, such as a business partnership.

Representing the under-represented

One of the big challenges for advocates of mentorship in the future is ensuring its benefits are felt by all sections of society. Data from a 2019 PayScale survey suggests white males are more likely to have a white mentor within their organisation than, for instance, BAME women (90% versus 60%). Although it could quite sensibly be argued that there are other, more nuanced factors at play which would explain this discrepancy, this is nonetheless a concerning gap which demonstrates that there’s still some way to go to ensure that all types of organisations have strong mentorship programmes in place.

Once this happens, the benefits for minority groups especially is considerable. For instance, the same survey found that BAME women who have a mentor are paid 5% more than those who don’t. But it’s more than just an issue of immediate financial gain. Business In The Community, one of the Prince’s Charities, states: ‘The plain fact is ethnic minorities who advance the furthest in their career all share one characteristic – a strong network of mentors… who nurture their professional development’. The experience of KPMG illustrates this well. In 2014-15, the company found that connecting BAME colleagues with senior mentorship figures helped drive engagement, a sense of value and, ultimately, career progression.

***

Mentoring is becoming a crucial tool in an employer’s learning and development toolkit. Supporting retention and fostering comprehensive social and commercial abilities, it has the potential to create a more dynamic working culture. Once the knowledge gaps around implementation and equality of rollout are resolved, we’ll be able to unleash mentorship’s potential, enriching the working lives of both mentors and mentees.

Peter Gbedemah is a computer scientist and telecoms entrepreneur with a wealth of experience he now uses to support burgeoning tech companies. Peter founded African telecoms business, Gateway Communications, which was subsequently bought by Vodacom (a subsidiary of Vodafone) for $700m USD.