Mentor or Development Partner? Who Cares? You Should

Mentor or Development Partner? Who Cares? You Should

We’ve seen lots of articles lately on mentoring. We are impressed by all the potential development this method can deliver. But sometimes managers choose this solution and find out later it did not get the job done.

Here’s an example. Earlier this year we spoke with a leader named Andy who, after a succession planning discussion, agreed that two of his people needed some in-depth exposure to critical skills. He naturally gravitated to “get them a mentor” as the action step in the development plan document. He asked around and found two willing seasoned professionals who offered to step up and provide the exposure. Thrilled at the outset, over months, Andy noted one of his people had let the mentoring relationship lapse and that the other employee was now happily exploring a different specialty of her mentor, not the skill targeted for her development. What went wrong?

When we shared the difference between a mentor and a development partner, he said “I have been looking for the wrong resource, but didn’t know it…my folks need development partners. And, I need to stay involved.”

Here’s what we shared that led to his new insight. While the word “mentor” has come to mean many things it generally refers to a relationship with a seasoned professional, an advisor, that occurs informally over time, often focused on career advancement. A “development partner” as we define it, is a person who has deep expertise in a specific area and willingness to coach a person to acquire skills in this arena. The development partner for the employee could be someone more senior, a peer, or even someone at a level lower, just so long as they have that deep expertise and the willingness and ability to coach. There is a very specific need and focused outcome right from the start (i.e., a contract) with a time span tied to the learning goal – it may be a couple of weeks or months. Conversations are tightly focused on the targeted skill with a steady flow of meetings, maybe even opportunities to observe, until the skill is acquired. Another difference with this approach is that the manager stays closely involved with the employee to be sure the skill is successfully applied to the immediate work situation.

Andy told us “Mentors certainly have their place. But, the idea of 'development partners' makes so much more sense for targeted and sophisticated skill development when I am turning to an expert for my people. Great solution! If I use development partners well, I will really raise the bar on development of more complex skills.I’m on it!”