Inspiring Leaders to Build a Culture of Mentorship

If you oversee people in any capacity, you might be among the 85% of business leaders who cite employee engagement and human development as one of your top challenges.  You work long and hard to deliver… if only you could find the right talent….if only they were more engaged! But, let’s start with this question:  As a leader in your company, how do you think your employees perceive your leadership?

As an experiment, I conducted a quick informal poll to find out what single word people would use to describe their bosses. It was a fair cross-section of people in a variety of industries, career positions, age, education, and locations.  I was surprised that more than 100 people contributed to my little research study.  Larger words indicate multiple responses.

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Does it surprise you to see so many negative descriptors?  It shouldn’t given that, according to recent Gallup Polls, 65% of employees listed “leadership” as a major weakness or obstacle in their organization.  In addition, 26% of U.S. employees are “highly disengaged,” only 13% say they are “highly engaged,” and 54% are actively seeking a new job.
Need more numbers?  Take a look at the gaps between the importance of and satisfaction with employee relationships with management in the SHRM 2015 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey.

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Meanwhile, back in the C-suite, leaders cite employee engagement, retention, and talent acquisition among the top resource challenges in 2015 (Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, 2015). There is a clear disconnect between the importance of and the satisfaction with aspects of management.

When you considering the data holistically, it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.  There’s no question that high employee disengagement represents both a failure of management and a fundamental challenge to today’s companies.


Would you ever tell employees they are not important or not valued?  Of course, you wouldn’t.  But many leaders unknowingly communicate those very messages in common daily behaviors.  Consider the top complaints about leadership and how those behaviors actually translate:

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Seems harsh, doesn’t it?  These behaviors are common among leaders, and the translations are very real to employees. Most leaders are stretched thin, have multiple responsibilities and the effects of their behaviors are not intentional. It’s not personal; there is just not enough time in the day.

These may be hard-working, conscientious, dedicated managers, supervisors, and leaders just trying to do the best job they can.  But the reality is that these kinds of behaviors actually cripple the engagement of the very people they expect to be invested, productive contributors.

Isn’t it just a little unreasonable to expect people to be engaged, contributing members of the team when they feel like their leaders have no confidence in their abilities or contributions, their work is not important, what they do doesn’t matter…they are not important?

Put your logic hat on for a moment and think about your most disengaged employees.  Do you really think they want to spend 8-10 hours each day doing work that is unfulfilling and unrewarding?  That’s ridiculous, of course.  People at all levels genuinely want to be engaged, contributing members of the team. Everyone wants to know that what they do really matters to the success of the organization.

When people feel managed and controlled rather than led and empowered, it won’t take long for engagement, productivity and retention to plummet because your people will eventually move on to take their talents and passions elsewhere.  People don’t leave companies; they leave leaders.

Isn’t it just a little unreasonable to expect people to be engaged, contributing members of the team when they feel like their leaders have no confidence in their abilities or contributions, their work is not important, what they do doesn’t matter…they are not important?

“The single biggest decision—bigger than all the rest—is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits—nothing.”

-Jim Clifton, CEO Gallup

Successful companies share some common characteristics.  They have disciplines and processes in place to monitor and adjust to changing market conditions, disruptions, growth, spend, operations, profitability, quality control, marketing, etc.  They have talented people at every level of the org chart and they create the kind of environment where people want to contribute.

If  you really want to distinguish the gold from the silver, the most successful companies have effective leaders who recognize that leadership isn’t confined to the C-suite.  Great leaders recognize the value in nurturing leadership at all levels.  Great leaders look for opportunities to learn from the people around them, give others opportunities to utilize their strengths, inspire them to embrace challenges, support them when they fail, and recognize them when they succeed.  Great leaders create a culture of mentorship.

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that your impact lasts in your absence.”
-Sheryl Sandberg

Those of us who have had great mentors and strong support networks know that they are not only invaluable gifts for professional growth and success, they are  essential. And, these are gifts that keep on giving because they not only enable people to go on to be effective mentors to others, but they create the foundation for a learning culture.

Factor in the complexities of a multi-generational workforce and a learning culture is not only important, but critical. For the first time in history, we have 5 different generations working side by side.  They think, learn, and communicate very differently. Each generation has been influenced by social trends and the cultural events of their prime. These experiences shape their perceptions and expectations of the workplace and their role in it.

For example, Millennials view mentoring opportunities as a workforce benefit.  A large majority of them would actually trade higher salaries for greater mentoring opportunities.  But they also want opportunities to show what they know. One of the biggest factors of job dissatisfaction among this segment of the workforce is not about what they’re not getting, but rather that they don’t have the opportunities to give enough. In fact, 28% of Millennials feel their current organizations aren’t making full use of their skills and strengths.  (Deloitte 2015 Millennial Survey)

Despite the marked differences among the generations, the biggest obstacle for many organizations may be a culture that neither promotes nor nurtures opportunities to teach and learn from one another.

Do you want to nurture determined, confident, creative problem-solvers and innovators? Or do you want a culture of apathy, pessimism, and disengagement?

Human beings react differently to challenges, problems, and failure when they feel safe, valued, and respected. 

If you want your people at all levels of the org chart to overcome the inevitable obstacles that come with changing markets, disruptions, innovation and growth, shift your mentorship and leadership model from top-down to cross-generational opportunities that encourage collective engagement and collaborative contributions.

The best leaders are defined by their people, not their products.

You might also enjoy reading:

My Boss Was Killing Me… Literally

Real Leaders Use the L Word

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people to increase their capacity for learning and creativity. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by understanding how the brain works and applying that to achieve greater productivity, professional growth, and personal satisfaction.


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