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We’re drawn to people like ourselves, and when we have someone to emulate who shares our traits, it makes it much easier to see ourselves in that position.
A University of Minnesota study (Ben-Ner, McCall, Stephane and Wang, 2006) showed that economic and social behaviour was significantly affected by a series of identity traits; those who were shown someone more similar to themselves in a work situation had a significantly increased level of engagement. Quite simply, if a person is shown a success and given something to aim for, they’ll aspire to be that person.
Similarly, in their paper ‘A Review of Formal and Informal Mentoring: Processes, Problems, and Design’, Inzer and Crawford found mentoring provided numerous benefits for the mentor, the mentee and the organisation.
Mentoring, they found, had a powerful impact on professional growth, career advancement, and career mobility of the protégé. Mentors experienced a renewed commitment to their profession, while organisations which promoted mentoring to achieve business goals benefited from improved employee performance, increased commitment, an improved flow of organisational information and a leadership team ready to accomplish its objectives.
So how should mentoring work in practice?
First and foremost, it should be kept simple and informal. The aim is to have a trusting relationship in which the protégé can confide in their mentor with any hopes, fears, issues and successes. As soon as forms begin to be filled and boxes start being ticked, the mentoring session turns into a performance review or assessment and the focus will shift to meeting criteria rather than developing management skills.
Taking the time to find someone from a similar background to provide mentoring will significantly increase chances of it being successful. The University of Minnesota’s study found that similarities in gender, religion, ethnicity, background, preferences for food, music art and sport all triggered positive affiliations, whereas those with differing preferences – supporting a rival sports team, for example – established less favourable outcomes.
The aim is to nurture and develop, not to score or rank. Establishing a process in which a talented young professional can bounce ideas off a role model can help to develop skills that will turn them into a successful leader.