HR Strategy

If not you, then who? How HR can foster successful mentorships

The relationship between teachers Janine and Barbara on ‘Abbott Elementary’ is an example of how powerful workplace mentorship can be.
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Abbott Elementary/ABC via Giphy

· 4 min read

Did you ever accidentally call your teacher “mom” in elementary school? (No? Just me?) If you did, it was probably because you felt comfortable around them, comfortable enough even to seek some “motherly” wisdom. We could all use some of that, even in the workplace. But now, we call those we turn to a mentor.

In Abbott Elementary, Janine, a new elementary school teacher, seeks mentorship from Barbara, a seasoned teacher at their Philadelphia, Pennsylvania school. Throughout the first season, Janine eagerly seeks mentorship from Barbara, who refuses because she wants to do her job and go home. While Janine stays hopeful, even calling Barbara her “work mom,” at last Barbara warms up and guides her.

One talent expert offers advice for how HR pros can help foster successful mentoring relationships (maybe even ones that take off quicker than between Janine and Barbara).

First things first. HR teams need to show employees the value of mentorships for mentees and mentors alike, said Sy Islam, VP of consulting at management consulting firm Talent Metrics, who has written about how Janine and Barbara exemplify mentorship.

“When [employees] think about mentoring, the more senior employees just imagine to themselves: ‘Well, it’s just extra work for me. I’m going to have to work harder…It’s going to be a time suck,’” Islam told HR Brew.

But guiding a mentee can make senior employees feel happier and more satisfied with their work, he added. “In some cases, it helps them to reflect on the work that they’ve done, it can help them to occasionally get new ideas and innovate in the job.”

Islam suggested HR pros start by identifying informal mentors (or well-respected employees at different levels who colleagues go to with questions), formalizing those relationships, and tracking employees’ experiences helping each other. Then, they can focus on making their mentoring program effective.

Efficacy. Identify what groups of employees need mentoring, Islam said. Do new supervisors need mentorship from peer leaders? Or perhaps new hires or early-career talent might benefit more?

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“It’s a little bit easier to get started at a particular level and define what the purpose of the mentoring program is and what you’re looking to do,” he said. Mentoring programs are most effective when companies identify the exact need, create mentorships around the need, and support employees while doing it, he added.

Mentorships can help new employees feel more comfortable in a new environment and help newly minted leaders work on new skills and feel supported, Islam said.

“You want new leaders to have a space and people to talk to about leadership and what the work of a leader actually means,” he said. “Usually, if you’re in charge of a group or team, that can be a lonely experience and mentoring experiences can help make the process less lonely.”

Matchmaking. For HR teams to foster effective mentor–mentee relationships, Islam said there has to be a commonality between the two parties, and they have to find a way to build a relationship out of that commonality.

In addition to Barbara and Janine, Islam points to another fictional example of a mentorship relationship: Tony Stark and Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“If you’ve seen the movies, they have a good relationship because they’re big science nerds, but they’re really different people,” he said. “One comes from money, the other doesn’t. One is young, the other is not. You have this relationship where they have this core thing that they both care about, and that connection is what helps them get the most out of that mentor–mentee relationship.”

Don’t worry about matching employees based on job titles, Islam said, and remember that there can be value not just in leader-to-subordinate mentorships, but in peer-to-peer ones. All that matters is that there’s mutual respect.

“[Janine and Barbara] are not best friends. They’re colleagues that respect one another,” Islam said. “Janine has respect for Barbara, Barbara has respect for Janine, and it’s not just: Oh, look at this young’un that needs to learn the ropes.”

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.