Over the past 25 years, mentoring has been used in both formal and informal settings. One reason organizations use mentors is that they know that teaching someone the ways of the organization creates positive results for both the employee and the organization.
Historically speaking, mentors serve two broad functions:
- Career development – Mentors sponsor, expose, coach and protect mentees while providing challenges to help them develop knowledge, skills and abilities
- Psychosocial support – Mentors provide friendship, acceptance and confirmation.
Mentoring has a format. It may be formal or informal and may consist of peer mentoring, collaborative mentoring, family-support mentoring or a combination. The type of mentoring used is dependent on funding, who is developing the mentoring program and the individual.
Research by Kram (1988), Wing (2009) and Zachary (2011) tell us that when an individual agrees to be a mentor or a mentee, more than a teacher-student bond is established; a relationship based on learning and shared commonalities is built.
We know that people learn through three channels:
- Trial and error
Knowing how mentees learn allows mentors to understand how a mentee will decipher a problem and provide a problem analysis. This is critical in the career development aspect; as mentors provide challenges that provide visibility and exposure, they must be able to teach solving strategies and to protect the mentees from predators who wish them harm.
When we seek new relationships to learn and grow in, we look at age, rank, training and level of education as the foundation of the relationship.
One reason for this is that as mentors provide psychosocial support, they must ensure the support given is in line with mentees’ values and aspirations for the organization. Another is based on trust—what information can mentors share with mentees.
Mentoring must also be looked at from an organizational perspective. Over the past 10 years, diversity and inclusion have been at the forefront of research. One reason is the number of minorities entering the workforce.
In 2015, the Department of Labor asserted that 90% of the first responders who are 100% career were male.
This is prompting fire service leaders to look at how they can increase diversity in their workplaces. It also leads to the question, why mentor personnel?
As organizations work toward mirroring their communities by hiring more members with diverse backgrounds, there’ll come a time when some in this new workforce will move toward becoming chief officers.
If organizations haven’t prepared current and new personnel to the new cultures, norms, values and behaviors, the department will experience a lack of acculturation—the ability of one culture to adapt to the norms, values and behaviors of another.
Departments will also experience assimilation, or the ability of one group adopting another group’s culture, resulting in the loss of one culture.
In essence, if departments aren’t preparing personnel to lead, the communities will decide which culture to assimilate into.
In closing, as departments move toward more diverse workforces, I offer 10 strategies for creating a mentoring program:
- Define what a mentoring relationship is for your department.
- Prepare your department and the mentors for the work they’ll be doing.
- Establish criteria for seeking and identifying potential mentors.
- Ensure mentors are qualified and have the authority to make decisions.
- Establish agreements of what the department will teach and what the mentee will experience.
- Provide timetables for mentor/mentee evaluations and feedback.
- Understand what the mentee wants to learn and the mentor is able to teach.
- Establish rules of conduct for both mentors and mentees.
- Create guidelines on how to match mentors and mentees.
- Have mentors and mentees provide documentation of their work.