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Five winning employee mentoring approaches and how to find the best type for your team

Mentoring is a bit like a legendary film with a bunch of awful sequels (think the first two Home Alone films versus the rest). People’s minds have become so wedded to the classic idea of older employees coaching younger ones that they block out all the other options.

Where our cinema analogy breaks down, however, is that the coaching scriptwriters put together something compelling for every other type of mentoring we’ve listed here.

The truth is that mentoring is what you make of it and it can make or break your business and people — that’s why it’s crucial to consider which type best fits your organisation and those developing within it.

Five popular types of workplace mentoring — and when to use them

Mentors can fulfil a wide variety of different roles and purposes and their relationships with mentees can be formal or informal. Mentors can be subject matter experts who’ve shaped their career through internal development, or they can be called in from outside of your organisation. Rule nothing out when it comes to mentoring, it all depends on the needs of your business, workforce and individual employees.

Great mentoring really is a work of art! But rather than designing your program from a blank canvas with no direction at all, here are the five popular types of mentoring you can pick up from the successful business palette. We’ll also tell you when they’re most beneficial!

  1. One-to-one or direct mentoring
  2. Group mentoring
  3. Peer mentoring
  4. Reverse mentoring
  5. Virtual mentoring

One-to-one or direct mentoring

This is the type of mentoring most people have in mind: a mentor meets with a mentee for private discussions to help advance their learning and development.

Traditionally, the mentor would be older and/or more experienced, while the mentee is younger, fresher and in need of development, but those tides have been changing for quite some time. These days, it’s not uncommon for direct mentoring to be upwards, downwards, sideways, and any which way across seniority and teams.

In ‘direct’ mentoring, a mentor might have multiple mentees. It is even possible (though unusual) for a mentee to have multiple mentors too. The important thing is that each mentoring relationship is distinct and separate, with a long-term vision.

When to use one-to-one or direct mentoring: Building future leaders

One-to-one mentoring should be your go-to for developing an outstanding employee with loads of untapped potential. Between the mentor and mentee, they can discuss personal barriers to future success, set leadership learning goals and the mentor can share their wisdom having ‘been there, done that’ before.

One-to-one or direct mentoring: How to get it right

For a direct mentor-mentee relationship to be a good match, you need to know what both parties are looking to gain (their personal goals) and how that would benefit the business (the company goals).

Filling skill gaps can be hugely rewarding for mentors and mentees, and that engagement translates directly to team morale and productivity — but only if their match is a success!

Next, if you’re going to help high-potential employees channel their skills and enthusiasm, you had better have a career path that’s open to them. Make sure your mentors are briefed on the latest strategic workforce planning so they know which roles will be open and when. 

You should also consider ways for both the mentor and the mentee to reflect on the experience alone and with other people. Are they both benefiting from the relationship? Is the programme achieving its pre-agreed purpose? If so, how? Setting, sharing and measuring goals will be key to keeping the programme on track — so too is adapting and flexing the mentoring type and format as needed.

But for all their benefits, one-to-one mentoring schemes have also been linked to underlying bias — and reinforcing it. It’s only human to gravitate towards people you feel an affinity with, but in terms of L&D there’s more to be gained from mixing it up. So consider assigning mentees to their mentors, instead.

Other use cases for one-to-one or direct mentoring

Direct mentoring can also be beneficial when:

  • Employees are considering a career/department change (the mentor can come from the field they are exploring).
  • A company has uncovered a cultural issue within a section of the team (mentors and coaches can be used to steer individuals back in the right direction).

Group mentoring

Group mentoring is where a single mentor works with a small group of mentees. Mentees might have the opportunity to meet with the mentor alone occasionally, but the main relationship is between the mentor and the group. 

When it works well, the relationship between members of the group of mentees can become a peer mentoring relationship, too.

When to use group mentoring: Encouraging cohesion and teamwork

Teamwork is essential in most organisations, but there are a number of workplaces and industries that live and die on the power of collaboration. If you’d put your business in that camp, then group mentoring might be for you.

Group mentoring allows your team members to learn from each other, with the assistance and supervision of a more experienced mentor. It encourages colleagues to value each other’s opinions and contributions — to collaborate on tasks and provide 360 feedback. It also helps increase empathy, understanding and respect.

Social learning structures, like group mentoring, have been found to dramatically increase L&D success. Over at Harvard Business School, social learning boosted course completion rates by 85%!

Today, group mentoring could be your secret weapon for distributed and virtual teams too – but more on that later. 

Group mentoring: How to get it right

Group mentoring does come with a few difficulties — especially if it’s used for an established team, where questions of confidentiality can be a concern. Team members need to feel safe enough to be honest and have confidence in the support of the group.

These issues can be avoided by setting expectations at the get-go and giving mentees someone to come to with any questions or doubts.

You also can’t forget about the individual’s goals in a group mentoring context. Yes, you’re approaching L&D as a team — learning in an open, collaborative format — but if the programme isn’t helping everyone to advance, then it’s not working that well.

Other use cases for group mentoring

You don’t have to be a highly-collaborative team to make use of group mentoring. Because a number of people are in the learning crew together, group mentoring works:

  • When many people need to build the same knowledge or skill at once, before a new product launch for example
  • When access to great mentors is limited and/or your team is working remotely.

Peer mentoring

Peer mentoring is when both the mentor and the mentee are at the same stage in their career. 

Typically, these relationships rely on the mentor having more experience in an area that the mentee is struggling with, but they can also be somewhat fluid with the participants switching between mentor and mentee.

When to use peer mentoring: To empower a culture of learning

The classic way of thinking about mentorships is that the mentor gives up their time and energy to help someone lower down the career ladder. It’s not accurate, but we still tend to think of mentoring as altruistic.

Peer mentoring offers you the opportunity to empower both mentees and mentors — and to be explicit about the benefits both parties stand to gain. Your mentee will typically receive advice and support from someone who has recently faced similar issues, but your mentor is also gaining experience in leadership skills. Both stand to gain productivity and performance tips, from spending time walking in each other’s shoes.

With a small gap between their overall experience levels, peer mentoring is based on a more equal relationship. Mentor and mentee have more shared experiences, which can make it easier for them to connect and form a trusting relationship. Programmes of this type also help promote learning as an everyday activity — and as something the organisation believes in.

Peer mentoring: How to get it right

When the typical hierarchy is taken away, you need both the mentor and the mentee to enter into the peer mentoring program with open minds and equal intentions. You might want to do away with the ‘mentor’ and ‘mentee’ labels altogether, as that can encourage a more balanced level of input from both sides.

Other use cases for peer mentoring

Informal learning between colleagues can be a benefit for:

  • Onboarding new hires: giving fresh recruits a ‘buddy’, rather than a ‘mentor’ — someone who is on their level and can be an informal person to turn to. 
  • When people in the same business or similar roles work on different products or services. What could a salesperson for Product A teach someone selling Product B, and so on?

Reverse mentoring

Reverse mentoring is usually a one-to-one mentoring relationship, but the more junior member of staff takes on the role of the mentor. 

Flipping the typical programme on its head, the more senior colleagues can benefit from fresh ways of thinking — they might even be challenged by the world view and skillset of their younger colleagues.

When to use reverse mentoring: Boosting your empathy and diversity 

Something magical happens when traditional norms are subverted. And that’s why reverse mentoring is a fantastic way to encourage all employees to walk a mile in their colleague’s shoes. 

When a senior staff member has been in the industry, or even the same organisation, for a number of years, they can develop tunnel vision. It becomes harder and harder to see new ways of working, systematic discriminations or age-old workflows that exclude certain demographics. Your younger staff and early talent are the perfect people to call it out.

Reverse mentoring: How to get it right

Reverse mentoring requires humility on the part of senior staff members, and junior mentors need to be diplomatic in how they explain new ideas and their experiences.

If both parties work well together, the benefits of honest communication can be dramatic. Giving early-career stars the platform to influence senior management can help companies grow and change.

Other use cases for reverse mentoring

When you flip the typical mentoring structure on its head, you give younger workers the opportunity to educate and develop their seniors. This can work equally well when:

  • Undergoing digital transformation (moving to a hybrid, cloud-based work environment for example).
  • Embracing a culture of innovation: no business remains competitive by standing still — reverse mentoring can be just the ticket when you need your senior staff to start thinking like their youngest customers.

Virtual mentoring

A new entrant to this hit-list since around March 2020, virtual mentoring is understandably having a big moment right now. 

Ask most modern-day mentors, and they’ll tell you they’re currently mixing in-person sessions with video calls and other virtual touchpoints. Digital learning platforms, like HowNow, also exist to support mentors and mentees, with follow-up learning resources and a way of tracking activity.

When to use virtual mentoring: Navigating the ‘new normal’

Mentoring was one of the first things to get dropped in many organisations at the start of the pandemic. It might be a natural reaction, but it’s also a shortsighted one. 

Mentoring is at its most powerful during times of high stress and dramatic change, after all. This is exactly when your employees need you to invest in their future and reassure them that you see a future with them and with your company too! 

When things are changing so rapidly, like they were when virtual mentoring really took off, it’s the most crucial time to share knowledge, tap into past experiences, break ideas out of silos and start thinking about succession planning for when that period of flux ends. That’s when virtual mentoring really comes into its own.

Virtual mentoring: How to get it right

Virtual mentoring is the same as face-to-face mentoring, right? Wrong. Well, almost. 

True you can achieve the same quality of connection (excuse the pun) between mentor and mentee, but it’s not enough to roll out the same format when mentoring in the virtual space. Virtual mentors should make an effort to check in more frequently and to provide meaningful resources at the end of, and in-between, sessions. Put your phone on silent, turn off screen notifications and really commit to each other during the time — it makes all the difference.

We’d still recommend finding opportunities for mentors and mentees to meet up IRL at least once a quarter, where possible. And, ideally, for their first meeting to be in-person too. Zoom fatigue is real and mentoring is too important for either party to enter into it feeling uninspired.

Where in-person meetings aren’t on the table, do whatever you can to make those mentoring moments feel different; order in croissants and coffee (on the company, of course), walk and talk around your local parks. Whatever works for you.

Other use cases for virtual mentoring

As we work towards lasting hybrid work structures, virtual mentoring will become a more and more feasible option for organisations today. But it can also help if:

  • Your team is pushed for time (as there’s no need to travel).
  • You are expanding to new markets and want team leaders in new locations to learn the ropes directly from HQ.

Ready to get started on your mentoring journey

Great mentors, and great mentoring schemes, don’t just happen. They take effort and expertise, but you don’t have to do it alone. Sometimes even mentoring schemes need a helping hand. 

HowNow can help you create the perfect structure for your mentoring scheme, based on your needs and priorities. See how for yourself.