The benefits of mentoring for organizations are clear and wide-ranging. Mentoring can help organizations retain staff, increase diversity, develop up-and-coming leaders, capture institutional knowledge, and more.
However, many leaders grapple with deciding how to promote mentoring in the organization. Should it be highly structured and formalized, or more organic and informal?
In formal mentoring programs, mentors and mentees are paired up with explicit developmental objectives for the mentee. Typically, there is a predetermined duration for the relationship. While formal mentoring programs are appealing to business leaders in that they are easier to measure, manage, and link to organizational objectives.
By definition, informal mentoring contains far less structure. Mentors and mentees pair up organically, and can often seem more like a friendship than a business relationship. Informal mentoring seems appealing in that formalizing mentoring relationships can make them feel stilted and forced.
Which mentoring strategy is more effective for organizations?
Companies considering mentoring should understand the benefits and downsides of both informal and formal mentoring.
For organizations that are just beginning to build mentoring capabilities, informal mentoring might seem less daunting than trying to launch a formal mentorship program. Additionally, there are benefits to informal mentoring over formal mentoring programs:
1. Informal mentoring feels more “natural.”
When a mentor and mentee pair up informally, it’s usually the result of chemistry between the two individuals, at least in part.
Just like in a dating or romantic relationship, chemistry can drive a significant portion of an informal mentoring relationship. Besides being beneficial for the mentee’s development, informal mentor-mentee pairs often spend time together simply because they enjoy each other’s company.
2. Informal mentoring is mentee-driven.
Without a formal structure to kick-start a mentoring relationship, informal mentoring is generally driven by the mentee as it is the mentee that seeks out a mentor.
Whether the mentee wants career mentoring to advance up the ladder, move into a new functional area, or develop new skills, they aren’t likely to pursue and stay in a mentoring relationship that doesn’t help them achieve their broader career goals. As a result, the mentoring relationship is likely to hit on whatever goals the mentee has.
3. Informal mentoring is more flexible.
Sometimes, a mentee may only need a business mentor for a short period of time, perhaps one or two sessions. This can happen if they need help thinking through a tough career decision, or need to develop a specific skill or competency.
Other times, mentoring relationships continue to be beneficial for both the mentor and mentee for several years, even decades. Informal mentoring allows this kind of flexibility, whereas formal mentoring programs may have a set duration for the mentoring relationship.
However, there are some limitations to informal mentoring. Depending on the goals of the organization, formal mentoring programs can provide greater benefits:
1. Formal mentoring programs are better for supporting diversity and inclusion efforts.
Employees don’t always have equal access to mentors informal mentoring.
For example, in some organizations men in leadership positions are reticent to mentor younger women for fear that the relationship will be seen as improper. This is a major problem for organizations with top leadership that is male-dominated, since men in leadership positions are more open to mentoring early career men than women.
Further, a big part of the “chemistry” that many mentors may feel with informal mentees tends to be the result of a shared background, such as attending the same school, or being a part of the same religion, gender or race.
As a result, women often get shut out of mentoring relationships more often than men. For organizations that are trying to increase the number of women in their leadership ranks, informal mentoring isn’t likely to be the best choice.
2. Formal mentoring programs can more easily span business units and geographic areas.
One major benefit that mentoring offers large organizations is the ability to provide perspective to different areas of the business.
For example, a mentee in research and development paired with a mentor from the sales department will be able to expand their perspective to include a different functional viewpoint. Or, mentor-mentee pairs in different areas of the country or even the globe can help different geographic units establish stronger relationships.
With informal mentoring, mentor-mentee pairs are more likely to be from the same business unit or geographic area, since their pairing is typically dependent on them “running into” one another in the first place. With formal mentoring, individuals can be paired up based on other compatibility factors other than convenience.
3. Formal mentoring programs can be more easily tied to organizational objectives.
With informal mentoring programs, mentoring relationship objectives tend to be set by the mentee.
This may or may not be at odds with what the organizational needs are. With formal mentoring programs, the organization plays a much bigger role in defining the objectives for the mentoring relationship.
For example, an organization may want to grow its leadership capabilities. While this goal can easily be supported with a formal mentoring program, it would be hit-or-miss for informal mentoring to achieve the same objective.
Also read: 5 Tips for Setting Mentoring Objectives
If companies really want to harness the benefits of mentoring, they should incorporate both informal and formal mentoring into their talent management strategy. An organization can encourage informal mentoring by utilizing mentoring software to make a database of potential mentors available to everyone.
At the same time, the organization can implement a formal mentoring program to provide the infrastructure to achieve specific organizational goals. With mentoring, there’s no need to choose between informal and formal programs.
Deciding what kind of mentoring program to implement at your organization?