Mentoring can broaden horizons and support professional development, says Liz Morrell

Having a mentor can be an invaluable career aid, but investing in mentoring programmes has fallen down the priority list in the present climate – if, indeed, it was ever on their list at all.

Ian Parsons, former retail chief executive for Tempo and Wax Lyrical and now an exemplar mentor for coaching and mentoring firm IDDAS, says: “Retailers haven’t focused on mentoring and I wonder if there is a reluctance to admit they need any sort of help.” And yet mentoring can not only aid staff engagement but also career development, thereby aiding succession planning.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development adviser on learning and talent development Dr John McGurk says it is a useful option in troubled times. “It’s a very low-cost, high impact form of learning and development.” But, he stresses, it must be both managed correctly and evaluated so results can be quantified – the danger being that finance directors cut mentoring budgets if they can’t be measured.

Having someone with past experience to draw upon is invaluable. John Lewis has run a mentoring scheme for six years. Regional learning and development manager
Felicity Padden says: “There will be mentees for whom this is the first time they have experienced trading in such tough conditions and they may be taking the opportunity to talk this through with a mentor who can help them look at specific business issues and identify the best outcome for the business, their teams and themselves.”

John Lewis project manager in personnel Zoe Venn has herself benefited from having a mentor. “My mentoring experience has given me a different perspective on my career. For most of us, if you only work things through yourself, you can become insular,” she says.

At Marks & Spencer there isn’t an official mentoring programme but it is supported on a case-by-case basis. A spokeswoman says: “In addition to their line manager we are able to pair employees with a mentor outside their existing reporting line who will have volunteered to support the employee in aspects of their long-term personal and professional development.”

Mentoring is about learning from someone older and wiser. Just as retailers should consider the advantages it will bring to their business, employees should proactively look to get involved. As IDDA director Philip Beddows says: “If there is a mentoring programme, then engage with it, but if not then go out and find someone appropriate.”

Mentor guidelines

What do you need to ensure when introducing a mentor programme?

  •             Match the chemistry between mentor and the individual being mentored
  •           Ensure there is a proper structure and evaluation so that mentoring doesn’t get lost in day-to-day operations
  •            Quantify results so you can justify your mentoring programme if it faces the chop in budget cuts
  •             Make sure it is aligned with the business strategy
  •             Beware of misconstruing the mentor’s role – they are there for guidance, not as a crutch