Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings”, Yoda in “Star Wars” or M in Ian Fleming’s early James Bond novels all act as mentors, providing sage advice and guidance to the less worldly-wise. In real life, as in fiction, the value of imparting wisdom gained through experience and age (Yoda is 900 years old, Gandalf is in his 1,000s) is becoming ever more important. It is in a company’s interest to keep its employees happy and loyal even if the jobs-market upheavals of the pandemic-induced “great resignation” are fizzling out. A good mentoring scheme can serve this purpose.

Workplace mentoring has long been an informal affair, disguised as a chat by the coffee machine or a trip to a bar with a longer-serving and more senior colleague. Even the most successful find having a receptive ear a useful addition to the corporate armoury. For over 30 years Bill Gates has turned to another billionaire, Warren Buffett, for advice. Peter Thiel, another tech baron, credits René Girard, a French polymath and part-time philosopher, as one of his greatest inspirations.

In recent years businesses have sought to formalise an arrangement with the obvious rewards of nurturing a sense of connection and loyalty, and helping the transfer and development of skills. The aim is to support staff and boost their confidence by sharing knowledge and experience. At their best, when there is genuine rapport between mentor and mentored, such arrangements can help the latter to come up with new ideas and help them cope with problems.

So how do firms build the best mentoring schemes? For them to work, some degree of chemistry is essential, as is a high regard for the person whose advice is being sought, irrespective of age gaps and backgrounds. Maurizio Orlacchio, a former manager for Four Seasons, a hotels chain, credited his career to his relationship with his mentor, an older executive who taught him how to motivate his employees—and himself.

Schemes should be self-managed with the junior party taking the lead in arranging discussions which are always confidential. It is best to let employees choose the person with whom they would most like to discuss their career trajectory, no matter their position on the corporate ladder. Requested mentors can be flattered but still decline.

If you want to become a valued mentor, do not start by offering unsolicited advice. If you’re being mentored, do not look for solutions to personal problems (failing romantic relationships, dandruff) or ask for bail money. But anything else work-related should be open for discussion. “I’m feeling wobbly, this is all too much to take in” is as legitimate as chatting about your long-term career prospects.

Firms are increasingly recognising the importance of face time with helpful colleagues. Nicholas Bloom at Stanford University, using data from hundreds of organisations since the onset of the pandemic, found that the mentoring of recent hires was a key reason to bring employees into the workplace two or three days a week. David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has echoed this in his push for a full return to the office.

Despite Goldman’s efforts, working from home has become a post-pandemic fixture. So virtual mentoring also still has a role. As with any online relationship, trust and rapport take longer to build. No matter how clearly boundaries are set, there are inevitable glimpses of personal spaces when sessions take place on Zoom with cameras on. Bartleby recommends looking reasonably smart and refraining from getting a beer from the fridge. What seems natural when meeting face-to-face does not always translate well online.

Reverse mentoring is also in fashion. Matching a junior employee with an executive whose understanding of diversity and other generational divides may need a refresher course could have benefits. There is room to debate how much a seasoned chief financial officer will learn from a millennial but the best mentoring relationships are always a two-way street.

Whether it is lunch, drinks or a chat in the car park, mentoring’s benefits are undeniable if it fosters a friendlier culture, staff retention and development of talented employees. Think of Yoda’s serene demeanour and galactic wisdom rather than his enigmatic speech patterns. The idea is to find, if not a Jedi master, then at least someone to talk to whenever you feel stuck in your job. Sometimes sharing a coffee can be just as powerful as wielding a lightsabre.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work: 

A retiring consultant’s advice on consultants (Jul 17th) 

A refresher on business air-travel etiquette (Aug 4th) 

The dark and bright sides of power (Jul 27th)

Also: How the Bartleby column got its name

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Updated: 27 Oct 2023, 08:12 PM IST