Do you have time to be a mentor?

January 31, 2013: 12:07 PM ET

Some managers who have squeezed mentoring into their already-packed schedules say they get as much out of it as mentees do.Business assistance --- Image by © Laughing Stock/Corbis

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I am a team leader at a company that has started encouraging everyone at my level to mentor at least one or two people below us. The point is to identify those with the potential to move up and guide them toward getting the right skills and experience. We can choose our own mentees, rather than having them assigned to us, but we do have to report periodically on how it's going. In fact, "talent development" is now a big chunk of what determines our bonuses.

All well and good, but I'm so busy already that I really worry about whether I have the time to do this on top of everything else. It might help if there were some specific benchmarks for what mentors are supposed to do, exactly, but that's being left up to us, too. Can I be any good at this in, say, 30 minutes a week? Do you or your readers have any suggestions for me? — Overbooked

Dear O.: Your employer's mentoring push sounds unusually vague, but maybe that's a good thing. After all, if there are no benchmarks, you can't be accused of not sticking to them. On the other hand, the lack of specific expectations may be adding to your anxiety about whether you have time for this -- which, by the way, is far from unusual. Notes Beth N. Carvin, whose human resources consulting firm Nobscot designs formal mentoring programs for big companies, "It's very common for people's first reaction to be 'I don't have the time' when they're asked to be mentors."

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And no wonder. Bill Rosenthal, CEO of communications coaching company Communispond, says that the most effective mentors do all or most of the things on this checklist:

  • Keep mentees current on what's happening in the company and in its competitive environment;
  • Participate in mentees' performance reviews "or at least provide input";
  • Showcase the mentee's accomplishments to higher-ups;
  • Help promising mentees consider "all the available development opportunities in the company, like job rotation, work on cross-functional teams, stretch assignments, and so on";
  • Arrange for help to plug any skills gaps, including training from in-house or outside sources; and
  • Step in to mediate when there's a problem -- "when, for example, there's a conflict when a fast-tracked mentee is reporting to an executive who'd prefer a more experienced person in the job." More
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