According to Wright, much of the problem with corporate mentorship programs is that they miss an opportunity to create a formal, structured path for mentors and mentees. Outside of work, there are plenty of informal mentorship opportunities, but companies have the opportunity to facilitate more directly impactful relationships—and they often squander it. This becomes a more pressing issue as more and more workers age into retirement, since companies risk losing a wealth of data and information as millions of people exit the workforce without passing much of it on.
Whether an initiative works inside an organization is as much about competency as it is culture. “You could have the best design in the world, you could spend $75,000 and have all the bells and whistles, but it could fall flat on its face if people don’t have the [mentoring] skills to be successful,” Labin of TERP Associates says. Getting those skills can be tough in complex organizations with so many moving parts and competing priorities.
Labin says that for other sorts of corporate-training programs, a highly trained consultant might be hired for a set period of time to focus on implementing a new process. But that’s rarely the case with mentoring initiatives. When companies put people with very little training and even less time in charge of constructing these programs and provide them with unclear expectations, they set them up to fail.
Ironically, the factors underpinning the rise of corporate mentoring might also be contributing to its troubles. Much of the resurgence in formal, corporate mentorship programs can be traced back to a major McKinsey report, “The War for Talent,” which suggested that in a global market, the best talent is in short supply and that organizations must compete to attract and retain the brightest minds.
But it is those same forces that now undermine the quality of the programs. In a Harvard Business Review article, “Why Mentoring Matters in a Hypercompetitive World,” the authors, Thomas J. DeLong, John J. Gabarro, Robert J. Lees, suggest that the global market is putting so much strain on corporations that investment in mentoring programs is atrophying. “The starkest reality of surviving in the professional service industry is that competition is fierce,” they write, adding, “In the face of such pressure, something has had to give ... and it’s been the mentoring process.” As a result, the quality of mentoring programs has declined and the versions that emerged became, as the authors described, “a stylized charade devoid of any real learning.”
What makes this so dangerous for companies is that there is more harm to be done by bad mentorship than there is good to be done by great mentorship. Researchers have established that negative mentoring experiences caused more intense emotional and behavioral responses among employees compared to positive incidents. More, the ramifications of failed mentoring relationships can lead to emotional, psychological, and even physical ailments. And feelings about poorly executed mentoring programs can translate into negative feelings about a company. When a company has a lackluster mentoring program, Labin says, “you start to erode trust in the organization.”