Cross mentoring – Mentoring between companies

Most formal mentoring takes place between people within the same organisation, but this isn’t the only possibility. It is hard, for example, to create effective mentoring relationships within small national branch offices – people are often too close and the choice of mentor is too limited. While distance mentoring, using mentors from the same company but from different countries, is a partial solution, many people still prefer to experience mentoring face to face.

The first recorded example of cross-mentoring was the Irish Post Office. It wanted to launch an ambitious programme to support career advancement for women in junior and middle management, but concluded it did not have sufficient potential mentors within its senior management. So it reached out to its supply chain – some of its biggest customers and biggest suppliers – asking if they could provide mentors.

A similar situation occurred in a large UK-based bank. It wanted its regional directors to become more commercially aware – while they all had strong banking skills, their understanding of business generally was weak. So, it sought mentors from a range of customer businesses, including MacDonalds.

Over time, we have seen a variety of cross-mentoring models emerge. The two examples above illustrate non-reciprocal cross-mentoring – the flow of mentors is just one way. Another model of this kind of cross-mentoring is rooted in a large company’s corporate social responsibility and reputation marketing. For example, British Telecom launched a programme, in which directors and senior managers from one of its divisions mentored the owners of small businesses. A subsidiary motive in this programme was that the mentors learnt a lot about the challenges of running a small company. In another case, a small group of mainly service-based companies provided mentors to prison governors.

In reciprocal cross-mentoring, there is a two-way flow of mentors and mentees. The earliest recorded example of this is Petronas, the Malaysian oil company. As one of the largest employers in the country, it has multiple divisions. Its mentoring programme provided middle managers with two mentors: one from their own division and one from another division. More than three-quarters of mentees found the mentor from another division to be the most useful, because they were able to offer a different perspective.

More difficult to arrange, but at least as powerful, are exchanges of mentors and mentees between consortia of completely different companies. Sometimes this happens under the aegis of a professional body – for example, the UK Institute of Practitioners in advertising initiated a scheme that linked young owners of advertising agencies with older, more experienced peers. Similarly, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has a programme that links highly experienced Human Resource directors with aspiring HR directors in other companies; and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has for some years now had a similar programme for aspiring Finance Directors.

Less frequently, several companies come together in a reciprocal arrangement. The arguments for doing so are several:

  • It splits the cost of training mentors and mentees – making the programme much more affordable
  • It gives the mentees access to very different perspectives and sometimes to expertise that doesn’t exist in their own companies
  • It stimulates innovation within both companies in a pairing, as mentors and mentees share ideas and ways of doing things

Examples of this approach can be seen across the UK, where public sector bodies, such as the health service, local government, police and fire services have developed collaboration agreements that allow them to train coaches and mentors together and offer people in their organisations a coach or mentor from a pool. It is up to the mentee whether they choose a mentor within their organisation or outside, but most prefer to take an external mentor.

In the context of leadership development, cross-mentoring can be part of a larger programme of leader development. In one design currently planned, for example, six companies each provide two mentees and two mentors. The 12 mentees are divided into two action learning sets with one person from each of six companies. Each set works on one issue for each of its members and shares accountability for the results. They present their results at the end of the project to all the sponsors together – with the sponsors in most cases being the CEO or another member of the Exco. The combination of mentoring and action learning seems to be a particularly powerful way of speeding up the development of leadership capability.

In other cases, where there is not an organised collective development element, consortia can encourage mentors and mentees to set up peer support groups.

However, this kind of cross-mentoring requires all relationships to begin and formally end (though they may continue informally) on an agreed common schedule. What many companies want is a more ad hoc arrangement, whereby mentees can find a mentor from another company when they are ready. In this case, member companies have to accept that there will be sometimes be some imbalance in the reciprocity, with one company providing more mentors than another for a time.

Among lessons learned so far in this emerging concept of cross-mentoring are:

  • Training together in the roles of mentor and mentee is essential. Having a common understanding and expectation of mentoring provides a foundation for managing different perspectives that arise from each company’s culture and business style
  • Very clear agreements are needed from the start about issues such as confidentiality and non-poaching. In general, consortia reduce potential problems here by ensuring that members are from non-competitive sectors. Indeed, the more innovatively  consortium thinks about who potential partner organisations might be, the better!
  • Participants need support – both online resources they can draw upon and someone to talk to about the mentoring relationship. Having a neutral programme manager (someone from outside the participating companies) makes this a lot easier
  • There must be a mechanism for ensuring that all partner companies feel fairly treated, in terms of giving and receiving mentoring. We recommend that there is a steering group of sponsors, tasked among other things with having open dialogue about such issues.

The concept of cross-mentoring is still quite young – not much more than 20 years old. However, it has great potential and is clearly a growing trend.

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