May the work-force be with you

Mentoring is much more than a management buzzword, rather it is a development technique that requires a great deal more than hands-off training.

But introducing a work-place mentoring scheme is far from an easy task.

How do you define what a ‘mentor’ does when the term can encompass so many roles? To some people, it is academic – like the role played by a personal tutor at college or university. Others expect a mentor to play a more personal role and offer guidance in every aspect of their life: spiritual, romantic, and career-related.

So why do organisations set up work-place mentoring schemes? And how can the role of a work-place mentor be defined to offer the most benefit the organisation, the mentor and the ‘mentee’?

Mentoring practices are an ideal way of creating a support system for employees. This is invaluable – especially for those who are training towards formal accountancy qualifications. The links forged by a mentoring scheme boost loyalty within firms and create a positive culture, where employees really feel they ‘belong.’

These softer effects are reflected in benefits to the bottom line, as a positive management culture boosts staff retention and productivity.

Experience also shows that where an employer can commit active support to training and study undertaken by employees, the chances of success are dramatically increased.

The most important first step in setting up a mentoring scheme is obtaining ‘buy-in’ from your mentors. The financial services division of the Department for Work and Pensions (formed in June from parts of the former social security, education and employment and employment departments) runs a successful mentoring scheme for students studying for CIPFA, CIMA and – more recently – AAT qualifications.

Lynne Atkinson, who administers the scheme, says: ‘Commitment from the mentors is vital to making the scheme work. They have to be keen and understand that they are signing up for something which could take two years or more – as long as it takes for their mentee to complete the qualification.’

A mentoring scheme need not be complex or bureaucratic. The mentor/mentee relationship works best when flexible. Once a mentor has been assigned, the two people can decide between them how often they need to meet (usually between once a month and once every two months). It helps if there are also regular meetings between the mentors. They can share information and ideas and discuss particular issues. Some organisations find it helps to create a central resource for study materials for trainees.

Creating a clear set of guidelines for mentors and mentees from the outset is vital. The aim is not to be prescriptive, but to communicate to everyone involved the parameters and objectives of the relationship. One of the most obvious possible pitfalls is that a mentor or mentee will be become too personally involved, and setting the boundaries at the start can help prevent this from happening.

The qualities that make a good mentor overlap with those that contribute to making an effective manager: good interpersonal skills, the ability to listen well, leadership skills and patience. But even with these skills, new mentors can often benefit from external training.

Tony Lynch, a mentor at the DWP in Blackpool, says: ‘Before I began mentoring I was sent on a course which covered everything from why do mentoring and the role of the mentor, to the benefits to my organisation and the pitfalls I might encounter. It was useful to have a really thorough briefing and the chance to ask all the questions I had.’

Ideally mentors should not have direct line management responsibility for their charges – they must have expertise in the areas they will be advising on, but it helps if they can act as an objective and independent adviser – which cannot always be said of line managers. At the DWP, for example, those mentoring students on AAT schemes have always completed the AAT qualifications themselves.

As a mentor, employees can gain a huge amount from their involvement in the scheme. It is an invaluable opportunity to learn, develop and enhance soft skills like communication and listening. If your work is largely of a technical or financial nature, you may not always be able to build up competence in these areas. It is also a useful way to keep your own technical skills and knowledge up to date.

The benefits to the mentee are perhaps more obvious. If you are studying towards a particular qualification then advice and guidance on specific subjects from an expert in the area is very useful.

Julie Williams, who is mentored by Tony Lynch at the DWP, says: ‘Recently I’ve been working on costings which is a particularly difficult topic for me because it’s not something I deal with every day in my job. Tony was able to help by giving me scenarios from his own experience to work through – and also by suggesting additional sources and books.’

Mentors can act as a ‘sounding board’ for mentees – either about issues relating to their day to day work, or career development issues. If necessary they can also act as an advocate, for example if pressures of work are making it difficult to commit the right amount of time to training and development.

One of the most important aspects of the mentoring scheme is the fact that it demonstrates to trainees how committed employers are to training.

As Williams says: ‘The fact that time is set aside for me to meet with Tony really shows me that it’s as important to my employer as it is to me that I complete my qualification.’

  • Patricia McDonagh is acting head of education and training at the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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