Mentors Beat Formal Training for Leadership Skills
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Mentoring has long been considered an effective way to foster growth and develop leadership skills in employees. It only works, however, if the person being mentored is willing to take some hard-hitting criticism.

That's the finding of new research that determined that informal mentoring is, indeed, more effective than formal group training for developing strong leaders.

The process, however, was effective only if protégés fully trusted their mentor and were willing to handle blunt criticism, not just empty praise, according to the research.

The findings reinforce the notion that the more organizations can move away from one-size-fits-all training toward one-on-one mentorships characterized by trust, the better their chances for building strong leaders will be.

"Organizations in the U.S. spend billions each year trying to develop better leaders with mixed results. This study is important because it explains why so many programs may be falling short of expectations," said Peter Harms, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-author of the study.

"Our research demonstrates that if leadership training efforts are to be successful, the targets of such interventions must be ready to develop. And the foundation of such readiness is an atmosphere of trust and a willingness to hear the hard truth about yourself," he said.

The research was conducted over six months and involved hundreds of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The field experiment randomly assigned cadets to either a tailored, structured mentorship program or a comparison group that would participate in group leadership training in a classroom setting. Results showed that cadets participating in the semiformal mentorships were significantly more likely to increase their confidence for taking on a leadership role than their counterparts.

The researchers theorize that mentors may have been important in helping protégés make meaning out of their experiences in a focused, one-on-one manner as compared to a less-personalized group setting. Mentors also provided important psychosocial support and served to validate their protégés’ claims of leadership, the researchers said.

For the process to work, however, protégés needed to be open and willing to discuss and explore their leadership with their mentor. That required a high level of trust, Harms said. Additionally, protégés who were oriented to handle tough and negative feedback also got more from the mentorships than those who preferred to be only complimented on their performance. For the latter group, mentoring was relatively ineffective.

The research has important implications for business, Harms said. Organizations may want to consider approaching leadership development in new, more systematic ways by using mentors. Prior research has also demonstrated that mentoring relationships have positive benefits for mentors as well as their protégés.

“Organizations have to decide for themselves how important leadership development is for them. It is possible, but it is also hard. But as this study showed, for both organizations and for individuals, self-improvement sometimes means doing something that is hard for you,” he said.

The research will appear in the upcoming issue of the journal of Academy of Management Learning and Education.