Mentoring: Establishing a mentoring culture

by HCA22 Jul 2009

A mentor is someone who has 'been there and done that'. They have walked the path, learned the lessons, and can provide the wisdom that comes from experience. Learning from a mentor can fast track development of people at every level in an organisation, and help avoid costly mistakes.

I vividly remember the very first task on my first day at work after leaving school. I had joined the Merchant Navy and was posted to a ship in Japan.

"Have a look in the portside chain locker in the forecastle head and check that we have a Kentor joining shackle," said the Chief Officer, my new boss. He may as well have been speaking a foreign language for all the sense it made to me. My confused look gave him much delight as it provided an opportunity to demonstrate his superiority and my ignorance.

The bosun, who overheard our exchange, took me aside and quietly explained what I needed to do, and then offered to show me. In the ensuing years this man was a marvellous mentor as he helped me learn from his experiences, while the Chief Officer continued to teach me how not to treat people.

We all have mentors - people who show us the way and help us tread a wiser path. We require different types of mentors at different times in our lives and careers.

When we first join an organisation there is great value in having someone who has worked at the firm for some time taking us under their wing. Internal mentors know and understand the corporate culture and wisdom. They know who the 'go-to people' are in order to get things done. They can help sponsor the career of rising stars. They can help us avoid common pitfalls and mistakes.

As we progress to greater and more complex challenges the type of mentor we require changes. Not only do they need to have walked a similar path, they also need to possess the key qualities required in a mentor - humility, curiosity, generosity, listening skills, and so forth.

But at all times the key thing about mentoring is that it is tailored to the needs of each person. As people join the firm they usually undertake initial training and induction in groups. Assigning mentors can personalise this for each participant. As people rise in the organisation, mentors can continue to support their specific growth and development. Senior leaders may still attend Executive MBA programs for example, but this would not replace the value of a mentor helping them with the very real challenges they face each day. At the very top of organisations, an external mentor to the CEO takes on a crucial role, as there is no longer the prospect for internal mentors, and many of the matters to be discussed require an agenda free confidant who understands what it is like to be a CEO. They also usually bring a completely different perspective, often from another industry, which can add great value to the leader's thinking.

Recognising the different types of mentors at different stages of a career enables a firm to build an approach to mentoring that complements and builds on the impact of existing learning and development programs. The key issue is to identify who can be a mentor. This is not a case of calling on volunteers, but rather of agreeing the criteria, and seeking out people who have raw mentoring capability. Ask questions like: Who do people enjoy working with? Who do people seem to naturally seek out for advice and comment? Who seems always willing to help others without seeking recognition for themselves? Who has a good track record of developing people that work for them?

Having found a group of potential mentors, the next task is to train them. The main thing new mentors need to understand is that this is about their 'client', not about them. They need to listen, help people learn, and avoid a natural inclination to want to solve problems. They need to regularly check that the client's expectations are being met, against a set of measures established early in the relationship.

Mentoring can be formalised, such as when you use a firm like Merryck & Co., or informal such as when you seek out a friend for wise counsel. The point is that having a mentor with whom you can test your thinking, and from whose experience and insight you can learn, will accelerate your success and help create significance in all that you do.

About the author

Anthony Howard is the CEO of Merryck & Co. For further information phone +(612) 9231 8670 or email or visit