Guest AuthorMahalingam

Of Mentors and Tormentors!

 By C Mahalingam

A ready-reckoner to help you choose the right one to guide the best and the brightest

Management of talent has become a number one priority not just for HR, but even more important for business leaders. Seamless mobility of talent across the globe has both helped and hurt organisations, depending on who gained and lost. It makes us reflect if the “war for talent” will ever be over. If it indeed is over, it might be safe to conclude at the end of it all, that the “talent won!”

While the importance of talent management is appreciated, what is still not sinking in is the idea of “talent segmentation” and managing the segments differently. Ask any marketing czar, and you will hear them wax eloquent on divide and conquer. Ask a finance whiz-kid,and they will tell you to maximise returns through portfolio management. While that is the reality, when it comes to people, leaders, including those in HR functions hesitate to segment and manage.

I once heard a CEO talk about his organisation that has a mentoring programme covering

100 per cent of the total employee base of over 4,000 people! I couldn’t resist asking him how he managed such massive mentoring initiatives. But he had a hard time coming up with a reply. While not necessarily a new idea, mentoring is a great concept. But it is also a serious enough initiative to warrant a careful ‘design and implementation’ approach.

Maximum benefit accrues when a thoughtful decision is taken on the recipients from among the employee base, who will benefit the most from mentorship support. This calls for segmentation. Usually, the top talent of employees identified through a robust process are given mentoring support. They derive maximum benefit as their potential receives a boost with a mentors’ counsel.

Choice of mentors from within the organisations requires the most attention. Mentoring is a skill-set and a mind-set. While skills can be imparted, a mindset is more difficult to create in order to meet demand.

As experience has shown organisations, it is much easier to spot the mentoring mindset in people with following attributes:

  • Demonstrates positive attitude, acts as a role model
  • Has high degree of enthusiasm in learning and development in a field/ domain
  • Has respect for the individual being mentored
  • Is good at listening

Choosing a panel of mentors is the most critical step to success. Many a time, people who do not exhibit any of the above qualities are chosen as mentors; either because they have come forward to mentor or because they have a higher title in the organisation.

Nothing can hurt mentoring more than a loosely-applied selection process. When such a careless selection happens, mentees tend to experience these individuals more as “tormentors” than as “mentors” they can learn from.

Tormentors exhibit some of the following attributes:

  • A mindset of “my way or the highway”
  • A critical perspective: finding faults rather than fixing problems
  • Shifting the focus from mentoring to strict servitude conditions

Once the slate of potential mentors is identified using the sample criteria mentioned above, the next logical step is to take them through a detailed orientation session on what mentoring is and is not. Mentors have to tread a cautious path that does not cross the managers’ defined organisational role. Like, mentees may bring up issues of salary, promotion and politics in a team with their manager. Many of these will strictly be outside the scope of mentorship.

While a mentor can help the mentee to cope effectively with a politically-charged environment, he cannot intervene to solve the problem. Mentors also need help understand the adult learning principles, feedback techniques, skills in probing and challenging and so on. The most important factor is matching the mentee and mentor. Assigning a mentor rarely delivers the desired impact. Since it is a relationship largely built on trust and inspiration, giving a mentee the freedom to choose a mentor is a key component of implementing such an initiative. HR functions have the responsibility to ensure tormentors are kept out and right mentors are chosen.


MaliC. Mahalingam is a leading HR Thought Leader in India. He was Executive Vice-President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation and served in organisations like IBM, HP, Phillips, Scandent Technologies etc. He is now a Leadership Coach, HR Strategic Consultant and visiting faculty at some of IIM’s.

(This article was published on May 13, 2015)

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