The idea of the mentor is ancient – quite literally. The concept can be traced back to Ancient Greece and is named after a character who offers sage advice to a young man in Homer’s Odyssey.
But despite its 3,000-year old roots, it’s only in the last decade or so that the concept has evolved from a loosely interpreted label for a confidant or wise friend to something a lot more structured. Now mentorships are commonly used by businesses to nurture talent and by individuals looking to further their careers.
In fact, formalised mentoring programmes have practically gone mainstream, with 70 per cent of Fortune 500 companies now having their own schemes up and running. And the travel management industry is no exception, with a number of new mentoring ideas emerging in the sector.
One such example was launched by Netherlands-based Corporate Travel Association (CORTAS). New members are now offered a “buddy” among those more experienced members when they join in an effort to plug a gap in the training and ongoing educational tools available to travel buyers, says Stephanie Smook, CORTAS managing director.
“Apart from associations organising educational events, there’s not a lot of training; there’s no travel management academy. Everyone has to learn by doing. At CORTAS we thought about how we could help these people that might be new to our association, new to the industry, and so decided to implement a buddy programme.”
70 per cent of Fortune 500 companies have set up their own mentorship schemes
With only buyers rather than suppliers among members the scheme facilitates “very open and honest conversations,” adds Smook – who is also regional director EMEA at ACTE. “They can share everything with each other. That leads to it being extremely helpful for everybody,” she says.
The recruiter's view
The format is informal, too, with the frequency and type of contact simply agreed between mentor and mentee.
It was a similar desire to tap into expertise and boost personal development opportunities within the industry that prompted ITM to add its own scheme in May this year. Open to its 4,000 members, mentors and mentees are carefully matched and encouraged to connect around four times per year (though it can be more) to discuss a range of career-related topics from communication skills, to work-life balance and personal confidence.
“Feedback is exceptional,” says a spokesperson. “The structure allows them to apply a different lens to certain scenarios, supporting them in a confidential and impartial way. ITM supports a coach-led approach, allowing its members to focus on their development and their approach versus performance.”
Meanwhile, for buyers unable to access corporate-level schemes, technology is emerging to open up the benefits of mentorships more widely. One example is PushFar, a mentoring platform to which individuals from any industry can sign up and be “intelligently” paired with a mentor “based on their experience, what they are looking for, availability of mentors, and much more”, says chief executive and co-founder Ed Johnson. “Then it helps mentors and mentees to schedule in meetings, keep track of their goals and mentoring agendas, provide feedback to each other and give full visibility of activity to those managing the schemes.”
Research points to a faster rate of progression and promotion
Whichever route they take, for mentees the benefits can be dramatic. Research points to a faster rate of progression and promotion (up to five times faster, in fact) among those individuals that take part. On top of that “there are several studies indicating an increase in employee engagement and retention through mentoring, as well as, more recently, mentoring being attributed as being a powerful tool for employee communication and diversity empowerment,” says Johnson.
The mentor's take
In the corporate travel sector, these recent launches reflect an industry more aware of the need to retain its talent, says Clive Wratten, chief executive of the BTA. “It’s vital for the sustainability of the industry that we bring in motivated and trained people who have new ideas,” he says.
“We have too high an attrition rate and that’s because people aren’t being mentored all the way through,” he adds. “So mentoring is good for the industry, as well as the individuals. It helps us retain our biggest assets, which are our people.”
For its part, the BTA has recently begun offering mentoring to students studying hospitality and tourism at Bournemouth University to build awareness of opportunities in the corporate travel sector, as well as working with an e-learning platform “to help educate and mentor those already in the industry, to move them up, widen their skill set and prepare them for the next levels of management”, says Wratten.
The value of mentoring partnerships goes both ways, too, says Marga Plukker, global travel and fleet manager at TomTom, and one of the mentors for the CORTAS buddy scheme. “It can make me think about new ways to approach things. Young people just out of education especially have a very different perspective and are not caught up in the pitfalls of day-to-day work, but have fresh ideas.”
Having turned to less formal mentors in her own early career, Plukker adds that she saw volunteering as a chance to “return a favour and share my knowledge”.
Andrea Caulfield-Smith, an ITM board director who acts as a mentor on its new programme, agrees. “You come away from a mentor session with a true buzz, knowing you’re helping someone become the best they can be, offering advice that can help them with situations they may be stuck with or may have a challenge dealing with. It isn’t a one-way street; we all learn something as a mentor, too.”
There are challenges to creating these sorts of results, of course. Not least in ensuring the right chemistry between a mentor and mentee who may never have met before.
In fact, the right mentor might not be waiting in the wings of a formalised scheme or online platform, cautions Wratten. They may emerge from somewhere far less planned. “Mentors are confidants and the best ones can just appear in your life, rather than squeezing or shoehorning one in. It’s like any relationship; there’s a bit of courting that goes on or a chemical fit. It’s about a network of people there to support you in a time of need.”
And put like that, it’s a concept not quite as estranged from its ancient roots as it might first appear.