The support that mentors offer can have considerable benefits, for both their proteges and the organisation at large. Recognising this, many develop formal mentoring programs to encourage and manage this process. However, such a managed system provides different conditions to an informal one, where parties identify an alignment of person and circumstance. Frankie Weinberg and Melenie Lankau at the University of Georgia decided to explore what this means for mentor contributions within formal mentoring relationships.Weinberg, F., & Lankau, M. (2010). Formal Mentoring Programs: A Mentor-Centric and Longitudinal Analysis Journal of Management, 37 (6), 1527-1557 DOI: 10.1177/0149206309349310
Weinberg and Lankau worked with a voluntary nine month mentoring program where mentor-protege pairs were formed by the organisation's executive committee; 110 such pairs joined their research. Questionnaires were used to understand how much time mentors dedicated to the relationship, and how much they felt they were fulfilling various mentoring functions: providing career guidance, psychosocial support, and role modelling good behaviours.
Mentoring relationships are understood to move through phases, so the authors sampled mentors views twice: two months into the program and one month after its end. This allowed study of the initiation phase, where each party gets the feel of the other, and the following cultivation phase, which insight and the relationship deepens. Mentoring activity is expected to be optimised during the cultivation phase, so Weinberg and Lankau investigated the relationship between the time spent on mentoring, and the mentoring functions on offer. Time spent on mentoring increased all three mentoring functions during initiation (time one), but by the cultivation phase, time expended was even more strongly associated with enhanced mentoring function, suggesting an hour of mentoring is worth more during cultivation than during initiation.
Weinberg and Lankau were concerned that mixed-sex pairs may suffer in a formalised context, as weaker resemblance can lead mentors to invest less effort than when working with a 'younger version of me'. Indeed, during the initiation period, mentors paired with proteges of the other sex overall reported providing lower levels of all three mentoring functions. However, once they had reached the cultivation stage, these mixed-sex penalties disappeared for psychosocial support and role-modelling, suggesting that increased familiarity managed to erode some of these barriers.
This study clearly evidences how formal mentoring relationships gain momentum: after the initiation phase, investments into the relationship yield greater dividends and impediments to the relationship tend to be shucked off. So organisations considering formal mentoring should ensure that the relationships they cultivate have the time that they need to blossom.