Why a Culture Change in the Workplace Benefits your Mentoring Program

Jamal Aziz

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

It’s hard and expensive to find and retain good employees. With this in mind, it’s not a surprise that companies are willing to try all sorts of things to make sure their employees stick around. For example, many companies have attempted to establish corporate mentorship programs where newer employees are paired up with veterans who can show them the way. But is this the right approach? Mentoring programs typically rely on single mentor-mentee matches and formal hierarchical pairings. Even if you can implement the best mentoring program, it is unlikely to achieve its intended result when the surrounding workplace is competitive and individualistic. For mentorship programs to have a real effect on the workplace, it seems that we all must take a step back and realize that real mentorship starts with company culture, not formal programs.

What are corporate mentoring programs and why are they important? 

Corporate mentoring programs are designed to connect employees to share knowledge and encouragement. They can range in scope and style, from informal mentoring between managers and their teams to highly structured programs with industry-specific assignments that employees complete together. Corporate mentoring programs use interpersonal connections to encourage and grow everyone’s skills in the workplace. They are meant to support employees in different ways, including investing in long-term professional development and advice when the employee encounters a challenging situation within the workplace. Through these mentoring programs, the value added to a company should develop a strong workplace community, which can be utilized as the foundation for growth and success.

Mentors of the moment – cultural values in mentorship 

According to scholars Brad Johnson, a professor of psychology at the United States Naval Academy, and David G. Smith, an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, companies need to focus on Mentors-of-the-moment. This approach helps promote a mentoring culture where all organization members, including middle to upper-ranking members, seek opportunities in daily interactions to develop or grow junior colleagues and peers. The model of involving company culture values compared to the script of traditional mentoring allows for shorter exchanges to enhance self-esteem, self-confidence, and a sense of belonging in lower-ranked employees. In addition, the daily interactions between high-ranked and lower-ranked employees could occur in regular activities within the workplace, such as trips to the coffee room, passing a colleague on the way to the elevator, or lingering in the wake of meetings. These moments become excellent opportunities to greet an unfamiliar person, commend them on an outstanding contribution, ask them about their career aspirations, or provide well-timed affirmation.

The relatively brief interactions between employees can lead to increasingly transformative developmental relationships, not only between the rankings of employees but also based on gender and race. Many men are often reluctant to initiate formal mentorships with women to avoid being seen spending a significant amount of time with someone of the opposite sex. The majority of men also tend to avoid these professional relationships across race, worrying they don’t have the cultural competence required or that a same-race mentor would be better. Mentor-of-the-moment exchanges lighten some of that worry by encouraging short positive interactions, so these leaders are more likely to reach out to any junior employee, no matter their race or gender.

The simplest way that companies can start implementing mentoring culture tactics is by continuing to provide positive support and curiosity to their employee’s career goals. For example, listening to their aspirations and giving guidance on how to excel within the company. Deliberately checking in with lower-ranked colleagues and offering support or resources when colleagues pursue their goals allows the mentor to be engaged when the colleague achieves that career milestone or accomplishment. Showing appreciation and highlighting their work in front of others helps develop a sense of belonging, affirmation, and opportunity. Even when those goals are not reached, the mentor can provide reinforcing feedback about how the employee can utilize a different approach to achieving their goal without the interaction feeling like a performance review. Also, it offers an open dialogue of communication for the lower-ranked employee by providing feedback to the mentor. This available line of communication will enforce mutuality, trust, and care, which will help all employees no matter what rank they are within the company.

Mentoring should align with culture 

Crafting a successful mentoring program can be a much more difficult task. First, one must have employees’ buy-in to the time and effort of providing mentorship to lower-ranked employees, which in turn feels like a more formulaic approach. However, if the culture of daily mentoring behaviors is embedded within the workplace, it provides more genuine mentorship between employees and fuels inclusion within the workplace. Having employees actively engage with each other in transparent, affirming conversations will eventually cause a shift in the company’s culture and, in turn, result in cultural mentorship that is less daunting than the formal assignment of traditional mentorship.