Grow Good Social Capital Through The 4 C’s of Mentoring

It has been 20 years since Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, the groundbreaking book that described  the phenomenon of disconnectedness that Putnam believes indicated the collapse of community in America.  Since then, all signs point to an increase in disconnectedness.  

In American workplaces, this is particularly acute.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2000, 3.3% of all workers worked remotely. Today, that number is up to 5.2% — this is a jump from 3.7 million workers to 6.5 million workers.  This trend looks as if it will continue : 90% of remote workers say they intend to work remotely for the rest of their careers.  

With all the advantages of remote work in flexibility, the disadvantage is a workforce that might not ever interact in person.  21% of remote workers say that the biggest struggle of working remotely is loneliness, while another 21% said that it was collaborating and communicating.  This is what Putnam described as the loss of social capital.  

Yet these trends do not mean that workplaces must throw up their hands and assume that an engaged workforce and an inclusive organizational culture are futile efforts. Rather, it is more important than ever to create a work environment that builds social capital.

Social capital is most simply defined as the benefits of sociability.  It is the productive outcome that arises from connectedness. It comes from meaningful relationships in the workplace where employees feel invested, think about each other, and engage in reciprocal acts of mutual benefit—it creates a sense of belonging.  

Mentoring is often overlooked as a means to build social capital; though, by its very nature, mentoring  is a reciprocal relationship where mentor and mentee collaborate towards a common goal that will build the mentees’ skills, knowledge, and abilities.    

When an organization invests in mentoring, it nurtures four characteristics that grow social capital: conversation, connection, community, and culture. Let’s take a deeper look into each of these characteristics and how mentoring fosters growth in each.

1 – Conversation 

Good mentoring begets good conversation, which is marked by the presence of dialogue.  Unlike the transactional conversations that more typically occur in workplace relationships, dialogue is a rich interaction in which both parties are fully present and learning. There is deep listening, a collaboration on problem-solving, and a mutual investment in achieving a goal. Good conversations contain an element of trust and learning.Here’s how to create better conversation in your mentoring relationships:

  • Set the intention to build trust. Don’t expect that mentoring conversations will be meaningful right off the bat. It requires sustained focus and intention, and creating a safe space for mentee and mentor to open up.
  • Take ownership of the learning. The advice to “own” the learning may seem counterintuitive. Ownership does not mean that one person has 100% of the obligation to  drive good conversation.  Rather, it means that both mentor and mentee have 100% of the obligation to drive good conversation. Once both parties recognize that they co-own the responsibility, conversation will go deeper and be reflective of collaborative dialogue.

2 – Connection

We know that one of the most important factors that determines whether someone is engaged at work is whether they have a meaningful relationship in the workplace.  One of the byproducts of good mentoring is enhanced engagement through connection with another individual, often someone with whom a relationship might not have been formed more organically. Through these connections, mentor and mentee gain broader perspective within an organization. 

One mentor I interviewed—a very senior level executive—told me that his mentoring relationship helped him see how some of the rules and procedures within his mentee’s department could be improved—and he was then able to effect some changes.   We often hear from mentees that they learn about additional possible career opportunities and make valuable connections through their mentors’ networks.    

Here are three things you can do to create more meaningful connections in your mentoring relationships:

  • Embrace differences.   In any relationship, there are differences between  each person that make a difference in how they view the world.  Lean into those differences.  Instead of judging the difference, exercise curiosity about why your mentoring partner’s perspective might be different from your own.  
  • Share your learning.   When you learn something in the pursuit of your goals, discuss that learning in your mentoring meetings.  If you learn something from your mentoring partner, talk about what you have learned, and the impact it has made.  
  • Welcome feedback.  In healthy mentoring relationships, mentoring partners set an expectation for continuous feedback.  Mentors should offer feedback to their mentees about the progress they are making in achieving their goals. It is as important, however, for mentor and mentee to seek and offer feedback on how the mentoring relationship is going.  Regularly set aside time to talk about what is working in the mentoring relationship and what needs to be improved upon.

3 – Community   

Social capital derives from a sense of belonging.  Mentors and mentees don’t just feel more connected to each other, they feel more connected to their organizations.  Research shows that mentorship increases results in better organizational citizenship— creating a better sense of community.   When organizations invest in mentoring training, they are creating a cohort of mentors and mentees which further enhances a sense of belonging.  

This is particularly palpable in large global organizations, or organizations with a remote or distributed workforce.  Because effective mentoring requires relationship-building and because it can be conducted using video technology, it is also a way to boost engagement and create a sense of belonging and accountability.  

Here are a few ways organizations can build community around mentoring.

  • Set expectations.Mentoring is a skill that requires practice.  Teach your leaders what constitutes good mentoring, and set the expectation that they develop their own mentoring competency.  
  • Establish a mentoring cohort.  Create opportunities for mentees and mentors to meet as a cohort.  Consider holding periodic roundtables for mentors to meet to share best practices, and for mentees to support one another. 
  • Create accountability.  Ask mentoring pairs to share their goals and their progress.  Measure satisfaction with mentoring relationships and the impact of mentoring on the organization. 

4 – Culture   

A mentoring culture is a network of good conversations, multiple connections, and community around learning. Mentoring is embedded in the fabric of the organization, and employees at all levels understand that development is a priority and a value.  

Here are some steps you can take to build a mentoring culture:

  • Connect mentoring to your organization’s core values. Understanding “why” something is important is a prerequisite for successful implementation.  Articulate and share how investing in the development of mentoring relationships is connected to the core values of your organization.
  • Communicate the importance of mentoring. Share the expectation that mentoring will occur.  Make sure your most senior leaders are participating in and sponsoring your mentoring initiative.  Encourage them to share their own mentoring stories when they communicate with their teams.
  • Measure progress.    Effective mentoring is an investment of time and resources.  It is critical to understand why you are making that investment and to measure progress against your purpose; these can include, for example, improvements in attraction and recruitment of top talent, improving diversity at top levels in the organization, increased engagement scores, or lower attrition rates.  Take baseline measurements before starting your mentoring initiatives and measure improvements along the way.

Social capital remains an essential ingredient of healthy workplaces, despite remote work increasing in prevalence.  Social capital is not at risk of being eroded in its entirety; however, it is a continual pulse-point issue. Leveraging mentoring to nurture the 4Cs—conversation, connection, community, and culture—can create an increased sense of belonging in employees, thus building social capital. 

About the author: Lisa Fain is the CEO of the Center for Mentoring Excellence and a global speaker on the intersection of mentoring and inclusion.  Lisa is also an executive coach and a former management-side employment attorney.  Her passion for diversity and inclusion work fuels her strong conviction that leveraging differences creates a better workplace and drives better business results. She is the author of the book Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring.

Better Mentoring, in three lists.

My new book,  “Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring” with Center for Mentoring Excellence founder Dr. Lois Zachary,  was recently released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.  You may be wondering what the phrase “better mentoring means.” Wonder no more. I am about to define it for you and offer some tips and tidbits to so you can achieve better mentoring.

Since people best retain content in threes, here are 3 lists of 3 things to remember about Better Mentoring.

small pot with sprouting plant growing from it

LIST 1:  Better Mentoring is….

  1. A reciprocal partnership
    Like any other partnership, (think medical practice, law firm, marriage), both mentor and mentee give something to the relationship, and both benefit.  Yes, mentees, mentors benefit too.  We hear over and over from mentors that they gain new perspectives, better leadership skills, and a powerful sense of contribution, among other things.
  2. Developmental
    Mentoring should focus on the mentee’s development, not just the mentee’s performance. Supervisors, colleagues, and advisors can help a mentee in learning how to perform best in their current role.  Mentors should focus on helping mentees grow into and beyond the mentee role.  To do this, mentor and mentee must set goals that focus on improving the skills, knowledge, and competency of the mentee.
  3. An effective strategy for inclusion
    Better Mentoring bridges difference.  Through my work leading Diversity & Inclusion, I came to believe that leadership buy-in and educational programming are important, but nothing moved the needle more on inclusion than encouraging and fostering meaningful relationships across difference.  Something transformational occurs when organizations create a structure for workplace relationships where people who may not ordinarily come together build trust and learn from one another.

LIST 2: Better Mentoring requires…

  1. A relationship
    I often hear things like “I consider Oprah my mentor,”  or “Nelson Mandela was a mentor to me.”  This can be true only if you actually know and interact with Oprah or Nelson Mandela.   These and other celebrities can be considered role models, teachers, even guides, but not mentors.  Mentoring requires an actual relationship with mutuality of purpose, reciprocity and focus on the mentee’s development.
  2. An investment of time
    Though I work mostly with organizations that have structured mentoring programs,  effective mentoring relationships need not stem from a structured program.  Informal mentorship do yield powerful results.  However, even informal mentoring relationships require an investment of time.  Mentor and mentee must prepare, reflect, and follow up on meetings and commitments.
  3. Intentionality
    Mentoring should be purpose-driven from the get-go.  What are the goals and outcomes you want to achieve?  Without intentionality, it is difficult to gauge progress, measure results, or to steer a mentoring relationship back on course.

LIST 3:  Better Mentoring is not…

  1. A download of a mentor’s knowledge
    A mentor’s job is to facilitate the mentee’s learning.  This can best be accomplished when a mentor shares their experiences, however, mentoring is not effective when a mentor simply downloads their knowledge to the mentee. Rather, mentors must listen closely to their mentee’s needs, provide a sounding board and a safe space for the mentee to ask questions, take risks and explore possibilities.
  2. Transactional
    I am often asked for a checklist that people should complete in order to make mentoring effective.  While there are predictable phases of mentoring, and certain conversations that are important to have, there is no checklist for effective mentoring.  Why?  Because mentoring is relational, not transactional.
  3. One size fits all
    No two mentoring relationships are the same.  Each journey is highly personalized and co-created by mentor and mentees.  What’s more, the form of mentoring itself may vary.  Better mentoring takes many forms:  1-on-1 mentoring pairs, mentoring circles, peer mentoring, mutual mentoring, etc.  All can be effective as long as they follow the tips in these lists.

There you have it.  Three lists of three tips and tidbits that can guide you towards better mentoring.

Someday is Here

Co-authored with Lisa Z. Fain.

As horrific as these first weeks of the global pandemic have been and as alarming and worrisome as the months to come will be, shelter-in-place presents an unexpected opportunity. Most people have multiple items on their to-do list, things that they’ve postponed and re-postponed for “someday.”  The most common thing people save for “someday” is their own development.

illustration of woman sitting at desk with laptop

“Someday” is here, right now. We are called to pay attention. We need to make the most of this time. Time has an odd way of melting away and we can’t control it but can take action so we do not squander it.

We are reminded about the importance of connection in this time. We are in a global crisis because of our interconnectedness, and yet, it is the crisis itself that requires us to physically distance ourselves from one another. It is connectedness itself that will get us through. 

We know that isolation and loneliness itself can be harmful to our health. One recent study even suggested that loneliness can shorten a person’s life by 15 years, the same amount as obesity or smoking. 

In addition to the loneliness that comes from being physically distant, people are concerned about their own financial health. There have been millions of layoffs and furloughs. People are questioning their future and worrying about how to feel financially, professionally and intellectually stable. This uncertainty begets worry, which causes us to lose perspective and often, to withdraw. And so, though it is crucial to physically distance ourselves, it is social connection – not social distancing – that we need.

As mentoring experts we speak with confidence when we say mentoring is needed now more than ever. Mentoring is about connection. It is about creating meaningful relationships in work and personal relationships where mentoring partners focus on growth and development. Mentoring drives authentic conversation and promotes meaningful, supportive and sustainable relationships.

There are, of course, other benefits as well.  Mentors say that through mentoring they gain knowledge about what is happening in other parts of their organization. Their perspectives are often challenged and then expanded as mentors get exposed to new ideas. They increase their own leadership competencies and find that they their individual interpersonal skills are enhanced. There are satisfaction and feel-good elements as well: satisfaction from seeing mentees develop and grow and good feelings from sharing their experience, expertise and wisdom.

For mentees, mentoring provides a welcome safety net, often reducing their stress levels. The pace of new learning increases for mentees. They gain self-confidence as their mentors create opportunities for them to test out new ideas and encourage them to try new things. Mentees feel supported as they explore career options, gain organizational knowledge and receive candid feedback.

Given these benefits, there is every reason to keep the learning and development platform moving forward. Our time in isolation provides opportunity to work on personal and professional development, self-improvement, increase capability and experience self-renewal. Rather than wait until someday, we must keep moving forward.

What better time to focus on growth and development? Many people now have time and tools like Zoom, FaceTime, GoToMeeting and Skype that make it easy to engage in virtual mentoring from home. 

We know that virtual mentoring works, and it is effective. The skepticism that surrounded its efficacy just a decade ago has all but disappeared. Users, too, have become more sophisticated and adept over time. Since the emergence of Covid-19, the urgency and ability to work and learn from home has increased exponentially.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Mentoring is a reciprocal learning relationship between two or more individuals, typically a mentor and mentee. It focuses on achievement of mutually defined development goals and outcomes.
  2. Effective mentoring functions as a partnership. How it is conducted is determined by the individuals involved. You get to write your own rules about accountability, confidentiality, boundaries, and the like.
  3. Good conversation is especially important in any mentoring relationship, but more so in virtual mentoring.
  4. Although technology has the advantage of simulating real-time interaction, it also has its challenges, not the least of which are technology glitches. Having a “Plan B” helps. If the only means for you to connect is your phone, don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.  Use your phone connection and move forward.
  5. All mentoring depends on establishing and maintaining meaningful points of connection. This means taking the time to build relationship and trust before the actual work of mentoring begins.
  6. Mentoring requires time, and now that you have it be sure you block off a realistic amount of time—and then protect that time. Keep in mind that it takes time to get to know someone.

Remember Benjamin Franklin’s words,  “Lost time is never found again.”  Someday has only just begun.

Now is prime time for mentoring.  You could be lending your time and talent to support someone else. What knowledge and experience do you have that might support and strengthen someone else right now? Or, you could be working on your own growth and development. What knowledge and experience might take you to the next level? What are some of those things that you never had time to do that would nurture you, help you grow?

Once you’ve answered these questions, it is time to get work and find a mentoring partner.

  1. Decide what you want to learn.
  2. Acknowledge the reality of the present time. Many people are hurting or experiencing overwhelm.  Take the time to discuss how each of you is really.
  3. Invest time and effort to set the climate for learning – setting, space, lighting, connection.
  4. Set a regular contact schedule but be flexible. Whether it is kids, dogs or UPS deliveries, there are bound to be more distractions than normal.
  5. Check in on your relationship and evaluate your progress frequently to make sure the learning is meaningful.

Dr. Lois J. Zachary and Lisa Fain are co-authors of the recently released book Bridging Differences for Better Mentoring, from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.