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How Mentoring Helps to Develop Leadership Skills

Often, organizations send staff to expensive off-site leadership training, and don't get the results they want. The truth is, leadership is complex, and one-time training isn’t likely to make a big impact.

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Virtually all businesses understand the value of good leadership, and the importance for developing leadership capabilities in their employees. However, not as many organizations know how to develop leadership skills within its workforce. 

Often, organizations will send staff to expensive off-site leadership training, and aren’t getting the results they want. The truth is, leadership is complex, and one-time training isn’t likely to make a big impact.

Although longer-term interventions like providing stretch or rotational assignments, 360-degree feedback, and mentoring require more effort and investment than a one-time class, the payoff is much greater.  

In particular, a formal mentoring program designed for leadership development can be transformational to an organization, and the people involved. And it’s not only the mentees that benefit: mentors also improve their own leadership skills by working with mentees. Mentoring is a win-win for organizations that want to grow their leadership capabilities. 

Mentoring can be critical in helping mentees (and mentors!) develop leadership skills in a number of ways:

Mentoring helps emerging leaders develop moral clarity 

An important part of being a leader is establishing and holding oneself to a high level of integrity.

By talking through specific situations with a mentor, mentees can sharpen their moral perspective and practice expressing it. By having a clear moral perspective, mentees can be better prepared to make the right decision when the pressure is high and it really counts. 

Mentoring can increase self-awareness 

One of the keys to great leadership is a high degree of self-awareness. However, most early career individuals are not getting enough feedback, for a variety of reasons.

The employee might not have a lot of direct contact with individuals in the organization who can provide feedback; there might be limited time for feedback or other organizational objectives might take priority; or their managers may simply not have the skills to effectively provide performance feedback.

Mentors can be selected (and trained) to give effective feedback can help mentees increase their self-awareness on things like their communication skills and style, presentation skills, etc. 

Mentoring can broaden the mentee’s functional perspective

One of the biggest challenges to growing leaders is getting them to expand their perspective. For example, a sales manager who is laser-focused on increasing revenues might not consider other important issues for the organization, like quality or margins. Until a certain point in the professional’s career, this laser-focus on sales is likely helpful. However, without expanding their perspective, the sales manager won’t be ready for a role that manages other functions.By working with a mentor who has more general managerial and leadership responsibilities, the sales manager can develop a broader organizational perspective. The mentor also benefits from seeing the organization through the mentee’s eyes, from a different vantage point. 

Mentoring helps mentees with developing the network they need to grow 

Often, early career professionals have a limited network. This can be particularly true if they are in a less visible area of the organization, come from a different background than the majority of employees, or they simply have underdeveloped networking skills. At times, this can be limiting to their career development, as they are unable to get informal advice and perspectives to inform career moves (for example, what is it really like to work in that other division?), and they might not be able to get the sponsorship necessary to move into a bigger role. However, when in a mentoring relationship, the early career professional can tap into the network of the more seasoned professional. A mentor can help the mentee make connections that will allow them to grow in their career. 

Mentoring can increase communication and interpersonal skills in both the mentor and the mentee 

Mentoring is excellent for mentees who need help developing their executive presence, presentation skills, emotional management skills and the like. Paired with an experienced mentor, the mentee has the benefit of both a role model as well as access to feedback on these topics. 

For mentors, a mentoring relationship can demand more advanced communication skills and push them to a higher level. For example, even seasoned professionals may not have had much experience with the deep, active listening required to be an effective mentor, or the skills in providing critical feedback. Mentoring allows both the mentee and the mentor to practice and grow these important interpersonal and communication skills. 

Reverse mentoring helps mentees develop mentoring skills of their own 

Popularized in the 1990’s by Jack Welch of GE, the term “reverse mentoring” recognizes that mentoring is not a one-way process in which the mentor gives and the mentee receives.

On the contrary, there are several topics in which the mentee might be able to mentor or coach the mentor. For example, early career professionals might be more tapped into the current technology trends, the attitudes and perspective of people with a particular background, and their technical knowledge is likely more up to date since they may have recently finished school.

By allowing the mentee to take on the role of the mentor, the mentee is able to practice valuable coaching and teaching skills. 

Companies that do succession planning well know that it’s not just about finding a successor to the current CEO, but about developing bench strength throughout the organization. Mentoring programs at multiple levels helps develop leadership capabilities throughout the organization, ensuring strong leadership for years to come.

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