Mentoring — good for business, good for society?

From Richard Branson to Steve Jobs, to Yves St Laurent, pretty much any successful business leader will wax lyrical about the mentor who helped them achieve their success. Even Mother Theresa would say how her own achievements were only possible because of her mentor Father Michael van der Peet.

Most of us have individuals we turn to for advice and support in our professional lives, be that a colleague, a former boss, someone who supported us earlier in our career or someone we have got to know through our work in some other way.

Many firms now recognise that building on the natural desire to be supported and guided by someone outside of a formal line management chain can be incredibly powerful. When done well, mentoring can be a hugely powerful tool for individuals to develop professionally. A range of academic research has demonstrated a powerful range of benefits for mentors, mentees and the businesses investing in such schemes. Much of the literature also overlooks an important wider element of mentoring and that is encouraging diversity within the workplace. Receiving informal guidance and support from more established individuals in the workplace can be an incredibly powerful way to support more junior staff and particularly those from groups that are traditionally under-represented. That it is the mentee who leads the discussion is particularly powerful in this context. More generally, and this is true for mentoring generally, as US businessman Zig Ziglar said, “A lot of people have gone further than they thought they could because someone else thought they could.”

Mentoring then is pretty much a win-win for all involved. And the good news is that, with modest investment to set up a mentoring scheme properly, it is incredibly cheap! Indeed, I would argue that an effective mentoring scheme can be one of the most powerful and cost-effective staff development investments a business can make.

But mentoring is also particularly powerful for achieving wider social change.

In January 2016, the Government launched a national mentoring campaign to connect a new generation of mentors to pre-GCSE teens at risk of disengaging and under-performing. The Careers & Enterprise Company have been asked to provide a coordinating role in this important mission. It is my honour to serve as the Company’s Senior Mentoring Adviser. By 2020, our goal is to have at least 25,000 young people at the risk of disengagement in employer-led mentoring.

The Company’s role is to unlock the power of the mentoring community, providing behind the scenes, coordinating support and resources to amplify, connect and strengthen mentoring provision in the country. To date, the Company has:

  • mapped out the geographical areas where young people are more disengaged;
  • produced research looking at what works in employer mentoring; and,
  • enabled 39 organisations to scale up their work across England in those communities where it is most needed.

The case for the value of employer mentoring for young people is clear, with academic research proving that well-organised and executed mentoring makes a real difference to young people. Indeed, the Company’s research on what works in careers guidance identified that mentoring was one of the two most promising activities in terms of impact out of 20 different activities.

The positive outcomes for young people associated with employer mentoring include improvements in behaviour, engagement, attainment and progression. Specific impacts of mentoring highlighted in academic research include:

  • improved academic attainment
  • better educational and career progression
  • improved insights in to work and better capability to manage their careers
  • more positive attitudes about work
  • improved self-confidence and self-esteem
  • a more positive orientation towards and engagement in education

Evidence shows that providing mentor support to young people at risk of disengagement from school can help to ‘level the playing field’. Increasingly, mentoring is recognised as providing a powerful vehicle by which to promote social mobility and improve life chances and in tackling disengagement. In addition, mentoring has an important role to play in promoting cohesion, bringing adults and young people from different communities together in meaningful relationships.

Employer mentoring forms a key part of many organisations’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agendas. Like the best responsible business approaches, effective employer mentoring has a direct business benefit to the companies involved.

The most extensive report evaluating the impact of businesses engaging in youth mentoring was that conducted in the United States by Ernst & Young with MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. This extensive research report, which involved interviews with 18 leading US-based corporates, identified an overwhelming business case for businesses to support employer mentoring programmes.

Interestingly, whilst it is undeniable that business engagement in youth mentoring boosts the reputation of the company, the EY report demonstrates that this motivation was the least common reason cited by the companies surveyed as to why they are involved in employer mentoring.

The three key benefits reported by the businesses involved in this research, supported by wider evidence from UK research, were:

  • Youth mentoring fosters employee engagement, satisfaction and retention. Companies that offer opportunities to volunteer and engage with their local communities are increasingly attractive to younger job-hunters. Mentoring is a critical component of professional development and, indeed, has been cited as the best form of skills-based volunteering that companies can offer their employees.
  • Youth mentoring helps businesses to cultivate and develop their future workforce. All of the companies in the study emphasised the importance of mentoring to developing their next generation of employees. Engaging future potential employees through mentoring is also seen as a key tool by which to increase diversity within companies.
  • Supporting vibrant local communities and potential customers. The companies in the EY report recognise that mentoring is a great way to support the communities in which they are based and “that their businesses will struggle if educational systems or the community itself is struggling”. This is also backed up by a Demos report in the UK highlighting how mentors develop a better understanding of and relationship with more diverse sections of local communities.

Many employers are frustrated that schools aren’t preparing young people for the world of work satisfactorily. Indeed, a 2015 British Chambers of Commerce survey revealed that 69% of businesses did not believe that secondary schools were properly preparing children for the world of work.

At the heart of the Careers & Enterprise Company’s mission is to bring schools and businesses together to close this gap. Connections between education and employers can make a huge difference. A young person who has four or more encounters with an employer is 86% less likely to be unemployed or not in education and can earn up to 18% more. However, in only 40% of schools are young people having even one encounter with an employer a year.

As much as schools need to better train young people, I would argue that it is incumbent on businesses of every size to play their part. And mentoring can be a great way to do this. For example, two of the top five entry-levels skills sought by businesses — communications skills and teamwork skills — can be directly improved through effective employer mentoring.

Getting involved in a local mentoring scheme is really very easy. Employer mentoring can take many forms, from intensive one-to-one interventions through to lighter-touch group mentoring programmes. All of the organisations which the Company is supporting understand the demands on employees and have therefore designed their programmes to fit with individuals’ and companies’ business pressures. All of the mentoring organisations involved also have strong processes in place to ensure that all mentors are supported and their wellbeing safeguarded. This will include appropriate training, support throughout the mentoring process and ensuring that all safeguarding processes have been followed.

So, my very simple call to action is to encourage you to sign up to youth mentoring as either individuals, as businesses or, indeed, as a region. We have established a new mentoring community and you can sign up on the Company’s website to find out how to get involved.

First published 14 August 2017 –