The 4 Phases of Successful Informal Mentor Relationships

The 4 Phases of Successful Informal Mentor Relationships

This article was updated on August 7, 2018.

New York-based Popular Community Bank doesn't have formal mentor relationships, but that doesn't mean they don't have successful informal ones. In fact, they work hard to provide "opportunities for people to meet and engage informally," says Pam Kulnis, the bank's Senior Vice President of Our People (Human Resources), which sets the stage for relationships to begin.

The Value of Informal Relationships

These informal relationships have become integral to the bank's succession planning, career planning and development tracks, and Kulnis is in charge of making sure those relationships blossom. "What I do," Kulnis says, "is make sure in our senior meetings that I understand or I reinforce with my peers that these conversations (between mentors and proteges) are happening. That there's some level of interaction or outreach. I even follow up with professionals or entry level managers to find out who [sic] they've been speaking to, and if they're interested in meeting with someone or learning more about the organization."

It's not like there's a structured tracking sheet or report card. It's just follow-up, but it's important for the organization's growth. "It's my belief that any kind of successful mentor relationship needs to be one that is comfortable for both parties and flexible enough to be successful for both," Kulnis says. "Highly structured programs make it a little too difficult or too forced."

Dr. Paul G. Schempp, author of "The Master Mentor Handbook" and University of Georgia professor, agrees. "Whether you're talking about business, education or the military, informal relationships are far more successful than formal programs. There's conclusive evidence as to why, but some factors have to do with informal relationships tending to last longer." Formal programs can last 12 months to two years. Informal relationships last as long as needed and sometimes well beyond that.

Though there are no real steps to informal programs, Dr. Schempp describes four distinct phases that successful informal mentor relationships go through.

First Phase: Initiation

The first one he calls "initiation or getting to know you. The focus here is on making a personal or professional connection and to agree on certain factors that will and will not happen in the relationship, like they agree to be personally committed and available."

The mentor also has to agree to be flexible enough to allow for multiple mentors. "We just did a study with NFL coaches, Schempp says, "and we found the most successful coaches normally had three to four mentors." Coaches with less than that were found to be less successful.

The protege must commit to understanding the mentor's history, embracing the knowledge, skills and experience they have to offer.

Second Phase: Cultivation

"This is where we cultivate the relationship," Schempp says, "so it's most helpful for the protege, not the mentor. The mentor's not a coach, not a teacher. He's a guide. It's more an advice-giving relationship rather than an 'I'm going to tell you what to do' relationship. Those types of relationships are not nearly as effective."

Mentors can help the protege set goals, point out if the protege is deficient somewhere or heading down the wrong path. But ultimately, "the protege must have ownership over the goals," Schempp says. "It has to be something the protege really wants to accomplish. That's where relationships tend to sink is when mentors try to set the goals."

Phase Three: Separation

This is the time when the two almost need to separate completely. The mentor takes a step back and tells the protege to carry the burden, while the mentor stays in the background offering support only as needed.

Phase Four: Redefinition

This is where the two determine the type of relationship they'll have moving forward. Do they remain as friends or go their separate ways? It depends upon the situation and people involved.

Setting things in motion can start from the top or bottom. In Kulnis's case, it came from the top. But it continues, Kulnis says,"because we're an organization with a lot of heart, with a sincere respect and commitment to employees. Once people have received guidance, the individual shares the experience and others get involved." That's how it's done. The results will speak for themselves.