Work and Organizations

Mentoring relationships need both common ground and difference

Upon joining a major technology company six years ago, Cherizza Lundy sought opportunities to discover connections between her assignments and other projects at the company as a way to learn about the corporate culture. On a particularly challenging indicators project, Lundy’s investigations led to a larger data project. She reached out to the senior leader to learn more. As their conversation moved beyond data, she discovered that the two had quite a bit in common.

Common ground is essential for effective mentoring relationships, asserts Stacy Blake-Beard, professor of management at Simmons College. And importantly, so is difference. By learning about commonalities and sharing across difference, both the mentor and mentee can grow in their careers and in job satisfaction.

According to Blake-Beard, “We need a new definition of mentoring.” She defines mentoring as a dynamic, reciprocal relationship that is mutually beneficial, empowering and enabling. Through effective mentoring relationships, mentees gain improved job satisfaction, improved job performance, faster promotions and higher salaries, and overall improved self-confidence and self-esteem. Mentors also gain by developing better leadership skills, increasing visibility in the organization and enhancing their support network. In global settings, mentors can gain access to cross-cultural and often cross-generational knowledge.

The need for similarity and difference

Capturing the potential of mentoring can be challenging, says Blake-Beard. We tend to gravitate toward people who are like us. Mentoring runs the risk of what scholars Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg call “cultural cloning”—the reproduction of the same, be it in terms of gender, race, ethnicity or organizational culture. Too much “sameness” can be detrimental to individuals as well as organizations.

esearch also shows that the tendency of individuals to seek, enjoy and prefer the company of similar individuals can differentially shape the opportunities of men and women in organizations. If men occupy the most powerful positions and seek mentees like themselves, mentoring can have negative consequences. Some studies have shown that it is more difficult for women and minorities to find mentors, and that men have more informal mentors than women. Other studies show that women and persons of color develop mentors at the same rate as White men, but different functions are offered.

Blake-Beard suggests that formal mentoring programs can be one tool or catalyst to overcome the dynamics that may limit access to powerful mentors for women and persons of color. As individuals, leaders can also commit to having at least one diverse mentee, as a way to balance access to people in power. While mentoring is an important step to leveraging difference, it is most effective when it is implemented in a suite of programs focused on diversity and inclusion, including hiring, promotions and assignment of key opportunities.

Deepening the relationship

While mentoring can build bridges across difference, relationships also need common ground to cement the connection. Blake-Beard suggests that individuals give the relationship time to develop, to find areas of common ground beyond surface dimensions. For example, Blake-Beard says, Lundy discovered that her mentor also went to Michigan State University and they shared a passion for the Spartans. What ensued in their relationship was that their connection to the Spartans enabled them to engage in this personal connection to then delve more deeply into the ways they could learn from one another.

Lundy’s mentor provided her with insights into the business acumen of their company, Blake-Beard points out. After Lundy discovered that her mentor transferred from another company, she gained an external viewpoint as well. This area of common ground became critical when Lundy grew frustrated at one point in her career. Her mentor could tell her "how similar situations played out for her at other companies” and find solutions to be more effective and satisfied at work.

As their relationship grew, Lundy found ways to empower her mentor as well. Her mentor “gained a champion for her own capabilities.” 

Moving from an initial meeting to a deep relationship takes time to build trust, says Blake-Beard. Individuals must move beyond hesitations about how to communicate across difference, as well as move beyond a desire to protect themselves from the unknown.

In order for mentoring to deliver its full potential, both mentors and mentees need to be ready to step outside their comfort zones and embrace difference. Only then can true learning and growth take place, and mentorship have the potential to contribute to increased diversity and equality in organizations.