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Don't Put Mentoring in a Box

Even though we know that mentoring has evolved well beyond its traditional beginnings, chances are that you will encounter people with a mindset that views mentoring as a formal, long-term, one-on-one, face-to face practice in which an older mentor grooms a younger employee for a specific job. Those who feel strongly about the traditional practice of mentoring often question the expanded practice of modern mentoring. How many of these objections sound familiar? 

  • Leadership sees mentoring in a traditionalist fashion, and I can’t do anything to change that. (And if my senior leadership doesn’t participate in the process, no one will.)
  • Modern mentoring (and the related social learning) will only appeal to people in younger generations, such as Millennials.
  • We won’t have enough mentors. If we open up the program, our small quantity of expert mentors will become inundated with requests.
  • Traditional mentoring is how our organization has always facilitated learning, and none of our participants complain. 

Don’t let these opinions hold you hostage. Traditional mentoring mindsets will stifle any attempt at enabling a more open, relationship-centered way of learning. To break free from that mindset, embrace a more adaptive approach to mentoring in order to get modern mentoring programs off the ground at your organization. 
Here are four ways you can overcome these common objections and make modern mentoring thrive. 

Change your terminology 

Senior leadership will need to get behind your modern mentoring initiative in order for it to be successful. That said, many senior leaders likely participated in traditional mentoring during their careers and will tend to see mentoring in this way. Because of this, it may be difficult to change their mindset around mentoring. If you envision presenting modern mentoring to your senior leaders and having your ideas rejected, simply change your terminology. For example, you could refer to your initiative as social learning or learning collaboration. Then, instead of having to split hairs over the definition of mentoring, you can focus on the substantial and scalable benefits of such a program. Most leaders can get behind any initiative that produces a smarter, more connected workforce that is better prepared to perform their jobs. 

While on the topic, nonparticipation by senior leadership is not critically important for modern mentoring. Senior leaders are certainly key stakeholders who will need to support and champion the initiative, but the demographic with the most to gain from modern mentoring are those employees in the middle and bottom of the organization who still have a lot of room for personal and professional growth. 

However, if senior leadership participation is non-negotiable for you, then you need to make participation easy for busy executives to fit into their workdays. I’ve found through my own experiences that executives will gladly participate if you make it clear it will not take too much of their time. As an executive myself, I feel the innate need to give back and recycle the knowledge that has helped me achieve my career success, but I don’t have patience for time-consuming or difficult processes. I use my company’s social learning technology, which makes participating in mentoring a quick five- to 10-minute process that I can easily fit in between meetings and projects. Time is today’s ultimate scarcity. If you ensure that participation in your initiative is quick and easy, you’ll find that your executives (and the rest of your employee population) will be more than happy to share their hard-gained knowledge and expertise. 

Don’t fear technology 

Modern mentoring is scaled and enabled by technology, yet there is a misconception in the workforce that older employees can’t or won’t use new or social technologies. This is a fallacy; for example, a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center indicated that seniors were the fastest-growing group of social media adopters, with 45 percent of Americans over 65 using at least one social networking site. Social and digital technologies are the new normal for all adults, not just those who may have been early adopters or who are from younger generations. Additionally, all of today’s employees work in the same fast-paced environment where most skills have a shelf life of 18 months or less. Regardless of age, workers want learning that matches their reality. 


They need ways to connect with peers to address knowledge needs in a more dynamic and fluid way. Modern mentoring helps remove barriers between people, adds context to training content, and allows knowledge to flow from person to person. 

Look for experts at all levels 

There once was a time when knowledge and information were scarce and the people who had access to them were few. Enter the Internet and egalitarian access to the digital world. Today’s organizations are filled with knowledge workers and look nothing like companies of days past; knowledge and expertise is found throughout the entire organization (yes, even at the very bottom). This means that everyone can be an advisor in her area of expertise, which falls in line with modern mentoring’s idea that everyone has something to teach and something to learn. If you encounter people who say modern mentoring programs that allow all employees to participate won’t succeed because there won’t be enough mentors, explain that learning from extreme experts does little to help a beginner. A beginner would learn best from someone with intermediate skills and knowledge. This saves the extreme experts for your intermediate learners, who will benefit from their advanced skills and knowledge. This broader approach opens up the scope of available advisors who will be able to support your inclusive and open modern mentoring environment. 

Listen to what is not being said 

A lack of complaints about your formal mentoring process does not equal complete happiness with it. It’s no surprise that your formal mentoring participants (especially your mentees) aren’t complaining about the process—it would be akin to career suicide if someone who is specially selected to receive exclusive treatment through formal mentoring complained about his inclusion in the process. And it’s true that employees may enjoy and derive value from participation in a traditional program, but organizations that limit their social learning to formal mentoring only serve between 1 and 10 percent of the employee population. Not only does this cause social justice issues to arise in the minds of employees (both excluded and included), but it also limits the impact that relationship-based learning can bring to an organization. Beyond being fair, organizations have much to gain from scaling improved performance, engagement, and retention across their employee population by including everyone in modern mentoring. You can even wrap formal mentoring into your modern mentoring approach, which would allow you to offer the practice that serves the few, while also creating a way to serve the masses through a broader program. 


Note: This article is excerpted from Modern Mentoring by Randy Emelo.


© 2015 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Randy Emelo is the founder and chief strategist at River, a Denver-based company that builds mentoring and social learning software. He has more than 25 years of experience in management, training, and leadership development, and is a prolific author, speaker, and thought leader on topics related to collaboration, mentoring, social learning, and talent development.

Throughout the years, Randy has embarked on a military career with the U.S. Navy, led leadership development work with nonprofits in the Americas, and helped Fortune 500 companies build mentoring and learning cultures in their organizations.

Randy holds a master’s degree in organizational design and effectiveness from Fielding Graduate University (formerly The Fielding Institute) in Santa Barbara, CA. Randy’s book, Modern Mentoring, is available now from ATD Press. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @remelo.

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