Out with obstacles, in with talent

Media release

February 2014


Out with obstacles, in with talent

Talented and engaged employees are a valuable asset to any company, yet as many employers will tell you, good employees are hard to find, and keep. Most likely that’s because talent goes where talent can prosper, seeking escape from what holds it back.

”Nurturing talent is a serious matter. When you bring very talented people into an organisation and there are too many obstacles in their way, they get frustrated and leave – which is why you often get a huge drop-off of great talent,” says Natalie Maroun, Managing Director  for LRMG Performance company.

Employers need to actively remove obstacles standing in the way of talented employees. Up until now mentoring has been one of the favoured programmes in developing talent, however more and more mentorship candidates are finding that being mentored is not a guaranteed yellow brick road to success.

Albert Pretorius, Content Producer and Community Manager at NATIVE VML, for example, says he signed up for a year-long mentorship programme when he joined the company. “Initially the process wasn’t easy. I felt vulnerable and scared of being judged. I imagine this is more the case when parties concerned have never been mentors or mentees before. But, if you can make it through those first few ‘feeling out’ sessions and keep an open and honest mind it can be an incredibly interesting and rewarding experience. Mentorship, like so many things, is all about how much you put in, what you’re willing to put in, what you’re willing to sacrifice, and that goes as much for mentees as it does for mentors.”

Maroun says mentorships can be tricky. “If you think about it, you are trying to get information from one person’s head into another person’s head and, you are trying to do it in real time,” says Maroun. “To be honest, I don’t think anyone has come up with a successful mentoring programme yet.”

Maroun says one of the primary problems with many mentoring programmes is the lack of structure or parameters. “We need to be able to answer the question ‘to what end’ before the programme even begins,” says Maroun and elaborates by ascribing her three vital components to a successful mentorship:

  1. There needs to be match in ideology and values between the person being mentored and his /her mentor. “For instance, teaming-up a mentor who is a stickler for punctuality with a person who struggles to meet deadlines or be on time is not going to work,” she explains.
  2. The mentor needs to be functionally more competent in the job than the person being mentored. “There is no point in mentoring someone in a field in which you are unfamiliar. The first tier in mentorship is about functionality i.e. improving your functionality and doing your job well.”
  3. The third criteria is the ‘where are we headed’ factor. Once the functionality level has been mastered, it is time to look at where the candidate is headed and what advice, guidance is needed.

In addition to mentorship, a number of organisations are now starting to introduce a new talent development concept, sponsorship, as outlined in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s new book (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor.

She describes sponsorship as a strategic workplace partnership between those with power and those with potential. Hewlett says that unlike mentors, who she says merely act as sympathetic sounding boards, “sponsors are people in positions of power who work on their protégé’s behalf to clear obstacles, foster connections, assign higher-profile work to ease the move up the ranks, and provide support in case of stumbles.”

Maroun agrees with the need for sponsors in the workplace. “Talented people who aren’t sponsored get frustrated in corporate life with all its obstacles and often leave”, she says. Maroun does not however agree with Hewlett’s view that mentoring has had its day.

“I believe the two programmes are complementary and should work together. Sponsorship facilitates a talented employee’s journey through an organisation, whereas mentorship is about developing and unearthing that talent,” says Maroun. “Sometimes you will have to start by removing the obstacles (e.g. if a company historically has never hired women into management, then that is an obstacle that needs to be removed for a talented female protégé), and sometimes you will have to start by developing the talent.”

“The thing that makes an organisation succeed is talent,” says Maroun. “Sponsorship, like mentorship, should be linked to developing and keeping that talent.”

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