Put Me In, Coach!

C-suite mentorships not only improve mentees’ performance and advance their careers, but also provide benefits for mentors and organizations.

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Have you ever walked into a colleague’s office to ask if you could bounce an idea off him or her? Or to ask if your last report was up to par? That kind of dialog facilitates open collaboration and spurs innovation. While mentoring is a slightly more formalized relationship, it can be a great resource to up-and-comers looking to get advice from someone who has been there and done that—whether the advice is project-related, career advancement-related, skills-related, goals-related or otherwise.

C-suite mentoring especially can be broad based since there are so many different skills necessary to run a company from the top. The important element of beginning a mentoring relationship is to establish the goals of the partnership. Stacy Richards, vice president of business development at Menttium Corporation, says, often, “The overall goal of a mentoring experience is to help the mentee strengthen his or her current performance, as well as prepare him or her for future positions. There’s not much that professionals in the C-suite haven't encountered in their careers, so you can expect the mentors to be very knowledgeable, and the experience that mentors have once they reach the level of the C-suite can be broad based and really valuable. You really want your mentees to aim high with their goals, given their unique access to a C-suite mentor. They can give mentees the big picture and help guide their career goals.”

What to Focus on in C-Suite Mentorships

Mentoring is not an exercise in the one-size-fits-all approach. There’s formal versus informal. There are internal mentors versus external mentors. There are one-mentor relationships versus multi-mentor relationships. There is one constant among all of the options, however. To be effective, each C-suite mentorship should be tailored to the individual goals of the mentee, which can vary wildly from mentorship to mentorship.

Richards emphasizes, “It's critical that a mentee drive his or her own learning agenda. That gives C-suite mentors direction on the areas that are most important to his or her mentee. The focus should be on the mentee's development goals, and aligning those with the mentor's interests and experience. Generally, since the focus is on the mentee's goals, they should take the lead in the relationship, including initiating it or raising a hand for the opportunity. If the mentee is motivated and open to learning, they will be comfortable seeking out a mentor and learning from them.”

When engaging in a C-suite mentorship, Danehl concurs that the first question for the mentor should always be: Where does my mentee need specific help? She suggests, “Tailor the knowledge, the skills and the personal experience to what the mentee is looking for. For example, is it a specific project or is it maybe communication skills?”

The most effective C-suite mentoring relationships are open and honest. Mentors should understand that professional and personal guidance are two sides of the same coin, so they should be prepared to share anything and everything that will aid the mentee in his or her journey as long as it’s not proprietary, confidential or in poor taste. Richards continues, “You want your mentors to talk generically about experiences without necessarily naming the people or organizations that were involved in the situations that they're going to share with their mentee.”

When it comes to the type and frequency of mentorship communication, every relationship may differ. When first engaging in a C-suite mentoring relationship, each participant should set expectations of how often and by which means to communicate and exchange knowledge. Danehl thinks that a consistent weekly or monthly call or visit typically suffices, but also encourages mentees to shadow mentors in their day-to-day activities. The more exposure the mentee has to the mentor, the more he or she is going to benefit from the relationship.

Richards is a proponent of formal mentoring because she feels that the mentor and mentee are more apt to receive the resources and guidance needed to establish a solid mentoring relationship, which can help facilitate trust between mentor and mentee faster. She says, “Formal mentoring programs provide guidance on the optimal structure for the relationship, for example, how often you should meet, what time of day or month works best, whether to meet in person or virtually, how you should structure each meeting, what you want to do to keep the momentum going throughout the course of partnership, etc.”

She continues, “At Mentium, we recommend at least a 12-month partnership, meeting at least once a month for at least one hour. We found that partnerships can meet more frequently, especially in the first few months, as the mentee's goals are being established and the partnership is really getting into its rhythm.”

On the other hand, this brings us to another caveat to C-suite mentoring. Mentees need to be respectful of mentors’ time. C-suite mentors already have a lot of responsibility they need to shoulder, so flexibility is a must when scheduling. Mentees simply need to be mindful of what kind of time and effort a C-suite mentor plans to bring to the table, so they can manage their expectations or find a more abiding mentor in terms of the format and the structure of the partnership.

Identifying Potential Mentorship Candidates and High Potentials

The types of employees that are ripe for C-suite mentorship are what Tisha Danehl, vice president at Ajilon Professional Staffing, refers to as high potentials—the types of employees that are motivated, or may overtly express interest in wanting to take the next step in his or her career, whether he or she has been on the job for one year or several years. More and more, ambitious young employees are pursuing mentoring relationships to achieve their career goals and dreams faster. Additionally, Danehl suggests that companies especially target those high potentials or employees they would like to retain for C-suite mentoring opportunities. Not only does mentoring correlate to positive retention benefits, but it also lets employees know the company values them and prioritizes their education.

Richards elaborates, “The best mentees within an organization are those people who are obviously motivated to grow and develop. You want them to be people who are willing to be open and vulnerable. You want to see a statement from them that they’re willing to put in the work they need to do for their own development. You want mentees to be open to feedback and, most importantly, really committed to the process.”

When it comes to identifying potential mentors, Richards mentions that they should be altruistic people who are willing to share their time and experiences to help young professionals succeed. “The best mentors are those people who have always been generous with their time, and really keeps stride on providing guidance and coaching to others, and are willing to openly share their experiences—both successes and failures. You want to find people who are willing to admit to mistakes they've made, talk openly about them and talk about what they've learned as a result.”

Danehl adds that any C-suite professional who is not only willing to put in the time, but also is excited about the mentoring relationship is an ideal candidate. She also thinks that internal C-suite mentors are more effective than external mentors because they can apply their life experience within the context of that company, which also may give them more creditability in the eyes of the mentee. Of mentoring candidates, she says, “Ideally, it would be great for someone who experienced progression within the company or within the industry. It's always nice to have that firsthand experience on the mentor side.”

Richards believes there is a time and a place for external C-suite mentorships, especially when the objective of the relationship is to improve hard and soft skills, not necessarily to achieve company-specific goals. She warns, though, that sometimes, “Mentees are less willing to be open and vulnerable with mentors in their own chain of command, or even in their own organization, no matter how large it is. That's where external partnerships can be particularly effective.”

However, Richards agrees that internal C-suite mentorships are ideal for passing down tribal knowledge and certain intricacies of the business, such as ideas on the organization’s vision, mission and leadership. She says, “Sharing of tribal knowledge internally through mentorships can be a big advantage. Lots of what senior leaders know about company culture, secrets to success, and the mistakes the organization made in the past aren't necessarily formally recorded somewhere, so mentoring relationships can be a critical way to pass that type of knowledge down. Relationships and ongoing conversations between the mentee and the mentor are just a great way to capture some of those key learning moments and key pieces of history of the organization that you're not necessarily going to learn somewhere else.”

C-Suite Mentoriship—A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

While discussing what a mentee may get out of a C-suite mentorship, and what kind of attributes to look for in a mentee and mentor, the question begs to be asked: What exactly does a C-suite mentor get out of this partnership, especially considering what a time investment may need to be made? Well, it appears that many mentors get just as many, if not more, benefits as a mentee. There is the potential for reverse mentoring, the ability to hone coaching skills, a new perspective on job progression and a reinvigoration for—or reintroduction to—the company or industry in which the mentor works.

Reverse mentoring is when a less senior employee teaches a more senior employee. In today’s four-generation workforce, for example, you may witness a millennial teaching a baby boomer how to use a new analytics app. Younger generations are generally more intuitive with technology because they’re more familiar with it, so helping an older employee use technology to get a job done is a quintessential instance of reverse mentoring. Richards concurs, “C-suite leaders get invaluable insights from the frontlines when they're mentoring. They can learn about trends in the workforce and new technology skills from their mentees. It's a safe environment for mentors as well. They can admit to what they don't know, and they can learn from their mentees at any stage of their career or life. Mentors should be very willing to talk about where they stumbled as well as where they succeeded because that's where the real learning happens.”

Danehl thinks, in addition to reverse mentoring, C-suite mentorship shares other teachable moments with the mentor in the form of regenerating a picture of what the new workforce consists, and how job functions are changing with the advent of new technology and increasing expectations. This new hands-on experience can offer mentors new perspectives and even lead to better decision-making. She says, “It really gives you insight into the challenges that new hires are experiencing. When I got into the industry in '97, it was very different now than someone going into the industry today.”

Danehl also thinks C-suite mentorship is a fantastic way to reimagine your job, or at least parts of it, as well: “For example, the C-suite executive might be more involved in daily operations versus going out to see a client. Having a mentee—and having to shadow a mentee on a client visit, meeting those clients—could get the mentor to remember some of the more exciting parts of the job.” The benefits are reciprocal for mentors and mentees in almost every partnership, but especially in the most successful ones.

What Do Organizations Get Out of Mentoring Programs?

Now we know what mentors and mentees may extrapolate from a successful C-suite mentorship, but how does that benefit a company or improve an organization? While there are a number of benefits, the first and foremost are increasing leadership succession planning and diminishing employee turnover. Danehl opines, “It’s about leveraging the talent that you have—both the C-suite and the mentees—with leadership and knowledge transfer for both hard and soft skills.”

Leadership succession planning and employee retention are becoming more and more critical for organizations because the talent shortage is looming increasingly large. In addition, employee turnover, especially in the C-suite, is escalating, while C-suite tenure is in decline. According to Richards, “Mentoring in the C-suite often guides future leaders of the organization. I think that's one of the primary motivations for involving C-suite leaders as mentors within an organization. It gives mentees the benefit of their broad experiences and their broad cultural knowledge within the organization.”

Danehl agrees that mentoring can boost employee engagement, which in turn, reduces employee turnover and facilitates succession planning. She also says that C-suite mentoring adds value to an organization because it legitimizes training when a mentee is taught from someone who was, at one point, in the trenches. She says, “Sometimes there's just that non-tangible knowledge that is not in an operation manual or a book, but can only be exchanged when spending time with someone.”

In summation, Richards explains that, when a company institutes a C-suite mentoring program, “There's greater cross-functional sharing of information and ideas, which really helps the organization. There's networking that happens in those partnerships, and the introduction that happens among the networks for mentees and mentors, which can often lead to benefits inside or outside the organization.”