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Mentoring Matters

Continuous learning drives employee performance.


Ian H Smith

Knowledge-intensive firms, such as ad and digital agencies, lawyers and management consultants, all have one thing in common: talent is hard to find - and to lose top performers is worse. As we move on from the era of 'organisation man', firms must adapt to the needs of their employees - not the other way round.

Five Compelling Reasons

Here are five powerful arguments for mentoring and making use of the LOOP Platform to execute on this important cultural value for the knowledge-intensive firm.

1. Atmosphere

The atmosphere inside a firm is the first thing an outsider notices - a would-be client, a would-be employee - forming an opinion based on how it feels inside the walls of the firm's physical buildings. Whilst you can create a fake decor, you cannot fake the human atmosphere of the firm. We all agree that having a 'friendly office environment' is important - but what's the opposite? Answer: it a 'fearful environment' - often accompanied by talent acquisition and retention challenges.


In 'sensing' the atmosphere of the organisation, it is, to quote Colin Sworder in Developing Strategic Thought (1995), akin to asking 'can you hear the baby cry?' When the atmosphere in the firm is positive, everyone is 'tuned-in' to what is important - just like the mother, who hears the baby cry first - and above all other noise.


One common problem in the firm might be a fear of making mistakes, leading to indecision and endless meetings trying to achieve consensus. These behaviours are common in large public sector organisations. We need to encourage the concept of a 'learning company', as originally pioneered by Peter Senge at MIT Sloan School of Management, to counter these fears.


Mentoring is a great way to create a positive atmosphere in the firm - starting with executives leading the way and encouraging everyone to become mentors and mentorees. This creates a more open, hence, friendly culture - where people feel more 'tuned-in' to their working environment. It says it's OK not to know everything as an individual - but it's great if we connect with the 'collective intelligence' and wisdom of our colleagues - as both mentors and mentorees.

2. Motivation

The late Sumantra Ghoshal talked about 'the pathologies of the inherited context': in plain English he went on to describe what this means in relation to what gets in the way of people's motivation to be genuinely innovative at work. This is the 4 C's: Compliance; Constraint: Contract; and, Control. What mentoring can do is overcome the worse interpretations of these four inevitable aspects of everyday business life.

We comply to the latest regulation, such as EU GDPR; we are constrained by the firm's budget; we sign an employment contract; and, our Chief Information Officer controls our IT systems. So, the 4C's are reality. But when the 4 C's are applied in an extreme way, it will have a corrosive effect on our motivation.

So, we need to counterbalance the 4 C's with 'the 4 E's': Empowerment; Empathy; Education; and, Earnings. And the last 'E' is not enough, if the other 'E's' are not apparent: money alone, is not a guarantee of employee motivation in the knowlege-intensive firm. Let's take a closer look at the '3 E's' that matter most to employee motivation:

Empowerment. If each mentoree can be a mentor too, then this is no longer about hierarchy, but capability. Everyone can learn, and everyone has something valuable to teach or share. If the Chair, CEO and other executives start the mentoring programme, it will inspire others to follow. It will give a true sense of empowerment to all employees.

Empathy. Just as designers - or more broadly, Design Thinkers know, empathy is the key building block for building a foundation of trust among colleagues in the firm. It is the way people get to to talk and act truthfully. Empathy means seeing the other person's perspective - and in turn, this leads to creating receptivity, then rapport - and finally - and most crucially, trust.

Education. For many years, business schools have talked about creating a 'learning organisation' culture. This is based on the original thinking of Peter Senge at MIT Sloan School of Management. At the heart of this thinking is 'team learning': enabling knowledge and wisdom to flow across boundaries and with openness at its heart. As we enable boundaryless, open mentoring on the LOOP Platform, it is appropriate here to mention the late Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and his idea of moving from 'single-loop learning' to 'double-loop learning'. Double-loop learning is contrasted with single-loop learning: the repeated attempt at the same problem, with no variation of method and without ever questioning the goal.

3. Performance

The truth about productivity in the knowledge-intensive firm is that we rarely think beyond the mechanics of financial measurables. Of course, the numbers and money matters, but so too, does the 'softer' things we can all do in business, This mean things that have both an direct and indirect and positive impact on these tangible measures in the firm.

As Kim Scott argues in Radical Candor, before managers look at 'results' they need to, firstly, provide 'guidance', and then, secondly, enable 'team-building'. Clearly, mentoring has a profound impact on these two steps - leading to the measurable value outcomes. What Scott argues for is creating a culture of open communications; to 'get, give and encourage guidance'.

For guidance also read mentoring - and in a non-hierarchical way - crossing boundaries and with an openness that supports the measurable value outcomes attributed to 'collective intelligence'. In knowledge-intensive firms, time is not something you can warehouse - it is an instantly perishable asset.

So, in a digital agency, for example, when it comes to measuring billable hours against utilisation of people - it is clear that mentoring across organisational boundaries can greatly enhance the results here, where skills and knowledge become more transferable - hence, utilised more across ever-changing billable people hours environments.

4. Retention

The ability to retain great people obviously relates to the three points above: Atmosphere; Motivation; and Performance. The first three 'E's': Empowerment; Empathy; and, Education are clearly related to employee loyalty and low churn rates. And whilst I have not made much about it in this post - the 'fourth E' - Earnings - is also another common sense factor in employee retention.

Mentoring is a great way to underpin the 'sense of belonging' that features in all of these points about employee retention. As we move away (certainly in UK) from the paternalistic incentives of final salary pensions, and as the notion of the long-serving 'organisation man' disappears, then employee retention is, of course, a relative measure today, compared to the distant past.

However, rapid churn is something that all managers in knowledge-intensive firms know comes at a very high-cost. So, by introducing multi-way mentoring throughout the firm, employee loyalty will clearly go up.

5. Knowledge

As discussed in the third 'E' - 'Education' - by introducing mentoring as a way of life in the knowledge-intensive firm, we move towards a 'learning company' culture, where 'double-loop learning' is contrasted with 'single-loop learning': the repeated attempt at the same problem, with no variation of method and without ever questioning the goal.

Once we introduce goals into learning, we make mentoring highly purposeful: it becomes a way to harness measurable 'collective intelligence'. In turn, this has a tangible impact on 'hard' business values - such as increasing people utilisation and therefore, maximising billable hours.


Mentoring is something that all senior executives can agree on: it is a good thing. But when considering the five compelling reasons for mentoring, it will not happen unless the Chair, CEO and other senior executives take a lead role: becoming the first mentors in the knowledge-intensive firm.

However, even when executives are willing to make mentoring happen, the firm needs a platform as a set of tools to engage mentors and mentorees across the entire firm. This is where the LOOP Platform is introduced - combined with a step-by-step method to execute.

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