How Do You Build Strong Mentoring Relationships in Sales?

As a new generation of sales professionals begins to make its mark on the workplace, the need for effective mentoring has increased dramatically. As younger people begin to see sales as less of a career and their older counterparts come to it after shifting out of other fields, it’s a novice’s world–and getting the most out of these new professionals requires a large amount of effort up front. Many businesses have recognized this and have begun increasing spending in employee training after a temporary lull during the recession of the late 2000s. According to the 2014 Corporate Learning Handbook, spending on corporate training increased by 15% in 2013 and is trending steadily upward.

Getting the most out of such training requires more than just throwing money at expensive seminars and continuing education programs. Most leading brands know this and have developed robust mentoring programs to extend the value of their training dollars even further with on-the-job clarification of lessons and comprehensive strengthening of new workers’ skills. It’s no coincidence that while on average, about half of companies overall have mentoring programs of some kind, more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies have crafted clear and compelling formal mentoring environments.

Mentoring can require significant time and effort, however, so getting the most out of the time spent on it is critical to success. Not all companies take the time to make sure their formal mentoring programs work for the benefit of all involved, either because their leaders do not see the value or because they are inexperienced and not sure where to start. We touch on some of the research in industrial-organizational psychology and educational psychology that will help your sales team increase its commitment to your company, improve its overall results, and develop organically as a part of a more complex organization.

Why Mentoring Helps–By the Numbers

Though mentoring is often encouraged, a really clear breakdown of what it does for a business isn’t always there. Asking many people why mentoring is a good idea earns blank looks, or the ever-vague “It makes employees do better.” Answering the fundamental question requires a better sense of what modern research says that mentoring will actually do for both the mentor and the protege. A clearer sense of what purpose mentoring is intended to serve can make it easier to communicate and measure the impact of both formal and informal workplace training, and in turn make it clearer if the resources currently invested in these activities have been appropriately recouped.

Mentoring, Retention, and Team-Building

Mentoring often gets couched in terms of learning, but one of the off-label benefits it brings to a team is group cohesion. Studies done in the past decade on mentoring relationships and interpersonal orientation have found that mentoring improves retention and leads to superior long-term outcomes in companies. In addition to more rigorously preparing an employee or executive for the challenges of a job, mentoring also helps individuals feel a greater sense of community and loyalty. If a company counts issues such a high employee turnover, excessive burnout, or shaky succession planning among its issues, starting a mentoring program can be a great way to get alleviate these issues and get down to improving the bottom line.

Encouraging the development of an informal mentoring environment, in which employees can offer advice to one another without the scaffolding of a formalized program, can also pay dividends. Informal mentoring, unlike its formal cousin, has significant benefits for the emotional relationships between participants. By encouraging employees to build one another’s strengths and to cover for one another’s weaknesses as a whole, mentoring allows for tighter-knit, longer-lived teams.

One model to consider here is horizontal mentoring, wherein two professionals with comparable amounts of experience (but different backgrounds and areas of expertise) are paired together. These relationships can empower the participants as well as add breadth to their bases of knowledge. Participants are likely to be at similar places within the contexts of their careers and potentially their personal lives as well, enabling them to more effectively provide lateral support and relevant advice about issues like work-life balance and acclimation than a more senior manager might be able to give.

Cultural Touchstones

Part of the reason that mentoring is so effective at encouraging retention, and one of its other benefits independent of that, is its strength in transmitting–as well as outright creatingcorporate culture. Sharing stories from the company’s past, including strategic, tactical, and ethical successes in accordance with the organization’s values, mentors can prime their proteges with knowledge of exactly what success in the company entails on many different axes.

These aspects of a mentor-protege relationship can be thought of as the equivalent of bedtime stories and fairy tales in a parent-child relationship. When a mentor tells a protege about the time he volunteered to take a pay cut to stay accountable for a failure, for instance, or about the tactics she personally used when she was in a sales team before taking a management position, the mentor is really saying: “This is how we do things here. This is the shape of success in this particular organization. This is the way you can expect to be treated if you treat others the same way.”

New employees often hear the words a company associates with its strategic posture and value structure and don’t really understand or care. How can they? They’re just words. Mentoring provides the opportunity to give those words weight, form, and context, and uses the human affinity for narratives to better both the protege and the mentor, and their mutual understanding of the company.

Mitigating Risk–Hiring From Within

Through mentoring, both employees and mentors gain a greater understanding of the company’s culture, which in turn makes it easier to hire from within when executive and managerial positions become available. Strong mentors bring a breadth of experience and familiarity with different aspects of the business to roles higher up in the company’s hierarchy, and proteges have access to the practical knowledge and informal understanding of their mentors–a true trickle-down effect.

This constant transmission and reinforcement of company culture makes certain that those who earn higher positions are already conversant with that culture, and in turn, more likely to stay. Someone hired from outside might prove themselves to be a poor fit for the company only long after they’ve undergone training and assimilation, which is a very large waste of time and money. When an experienced mentor or a valued protege ends up in an executive position, they’re more likely to stay there.


The Biggest Variable–Perceived Organizational Support

Why, then, do some mentoring relationships work while others fail? What are the common threads between good mentoring relationships, and how can we use those threads to be leveraged towards success? Newer research indicates that perceived organizational support (POS)–the idea that an organization cares about its employees and is invested in their health and development–plays a crucial role in the relationship between mentors and proteges. This relationship feeds on itself and, over time, can play out perpetually within an organization. As POS increases, mentoring improves, and the amount of support proteges feel increases significantly.

Perceived organizational support can even make better mentors out of those who normally wouldn’t pursue such relationships. A study conducted by Changya Hu of Taiwan’s National Chengi University, titled “When mentors feel supported: Relationships with mentoring functions and proteges’s perceived organizational support”, discovered that while mentor altruism predicted involved and effective mentor-protege relationships, mentors with low natural altruism did much better as mentors when they had a heightened sense of perceived organizational support.

Optimizing POS: It’s Mentors All the Way Down

Building up perceived organizational support starts from a simple premise: support your employees. More than that, however, POS increases most when the support employees receive comes from on high. Assistance and support from those with higher status, whether formal or informal, tends to generate greater gains in POS. Those who enjoy the clear respect and value of their superiors are typically seen as better representatives of what the organization values, and their support tends to come with more weight in organizational perception.

Appropriately, a mentoring culture has a trickle-down aspect thanks to POS. Those who receive mentoring from their superiors feel supported and enthusiastic, and in turn become more supportive when it’s their turn to do the same mentoring. Building a company culture that values professional development and personal well-being leads to stronger mentoring, and vice versa. It can even make stronger mentors of those who don’t have an ounce of “natural teaching ability” in them.

Part of the reason this works is the basic human understanding of reciprocity, or the idea that people should give back in equal measure with what they receive. Those who receive assistance from the company feel more comfortable providing that assistance in turn, whether it’s through horizontal mentoring activities or more traditional mentor-protegee relationships. An organization that does right by its employees is more likely to get good results when asking them to share their knowledge with each other.

Informal and Discretionary Mentoring: Advantages in a POS Model

Good mentoring isn’t always formalized and precise. Perceived organizational support increases when the proteges believe at least some of the actions are discretionary. In other words, if mentoring is strictly regimented, employees will just see it as part of going through the motions of working with a company, and the benefits of POS on them may dwindle. The benefits of existing POS for the mentors, however, will still persist, so many of the other advantages of a mentoring program should still apply. But, to get the absolute most out of mentoring, it cannot all be procedural.

Those who are already in formal mentoring relationships should pursue more than the mandated minimum time spent evaluating, discussing, and otherwise working with their proteges. This type of discretionary assistance can continue to improve the perception of support, and in turn can lead to better employee engagement and performance.

Endorsement: A Key Factor

One of the behaviors that most rapidly increases the perception of organizational support is the endorsement of the protege to other members of the organization. Obviously this is the sort of thing that needs to be earned, but making mention of smaller accomplishments and letting the protege know it occurred can generate that perception, and in turn, the engagement that goes with it.

For a protege, their mentor can become the face of the organization; they’re in a position of relative power and experience, and they’re the one who provides the most direct input from above on a regular basis. Accordingly, having that mentor willing to go to bat for the protege and talk about successes says that someone with experience, whose opinions carry weight and respect, is committed to their success.

A Two-Way Street

Unlike training or coaching, which tend to have relatively limited scope, mentoring lasts a long time and provides the participants with many opportunities to learn from each other. The ability of the mentor to learn from the protege serves as one of the hallmarks of good mentoring. An exceptional mentor can take something new from every interaction with a protege, and find ways to implement that new information elsewhere to add more value to the company.

An Outside Perspective

Proteges provide mentors with a perspective that isn’t rooted in years of company tradition or a particular business school’s preferred practices. When a protege asks for reasons why business is done a certain way, or why the lead pipeline is structured the way it is, that’s a teachable moment for both parties. If the mentor can’t come up with a satisfying justification once the question is posed, that might indicate that a reassessment of the company’s practices is in order. This is not to say that every challenge from a protege indicates a structural issue, but a perspective not mired in tradition can be very helpful in identifying problem points.

Bridging the Gap

Mentors also have chances to learn when paired with representatives of different generations. A millennials who’s been with a company for a few years has a chance to learn an older way of doing business from a baby boomer switching to sales after years in another field, and a Gen X team lead can learn a lot from the digital-native perspective of a millennial fresh out of college.

Building familiarity with these outside perspectives can also help the mentor when performing other management duties. The insights gained from interacting with one member of a different generation or cohort can be applied more broadly, and will make the manager more effective at maintaining motivation and getting results out of a broader swath of employees.

Good and Bad Experiences: Building a Mentoring Culture

Experience shape people, and the quality of a mentoring experience affects later willingness to participate in a mentoring relationship. Beyond that, good and bad experiences affect how willing proteges and mentors are to acknowledge the lessons learned in the relationship, and a significantly poor experience can cause proteges or mentors to terminate the relationship early. The overall experience quality can further improve enthusiasm for mentoring in its on right, in addition to increasing perceived support.

As a general rule, bad experiences affect the perception of a relationship much more than good ones. (This doesn’t just apply to mentor-protege dynamics, either; relationships of all kinds need as many as five good major interactions for every bad major interaction to stay stable.) Within mentoring the question is a little more complex, and some areas of the relationship suffer much more due to bad interactions than others. This is not to undermine the fact that some things can change rapidly due to good experiences. Some factors respond much more profoundly to a good mentoring experience than a bad one. At least one major factor, meanwhile, goes almost unaffected by the quality of the mentoring.

The Effects of Good Experiences

For proteges, good experiences are necessary for a perception of quality in the mentoring relationship, and indeed actually outstrip bad experiences in their importance. This leads to a heightened perception of secondary career-related benefits of mentoring, such as career growth and positive self-image. Proteges in a relationship that ends up merely “okay” will still derive the primary benefits of mentoring, but an exceptional relationship can pay significant rewards in the long term.

Good experiences affect well-being for mentors more than proteges, though neither bad nor good have a drastic effect relative to one another here. A mentor whose relationship with the protege is good will be more likely to derive general emotional and psychological health from it than the protege in the same relationship, assuming all other factors are equal.

The Effects of Bad Experiences

Bad experiences significantly affect the emotional well-being of proteges in a mentoring relationship, and don’t really matter for mentors. A protege is in a position of unique emotional and career vulnerability when participating in a mentoring relationship, and a bad experience can leave them feeling helpless, unappreciated, and worried about the future. As mentors hold a significant amount of perceived sway within the organization, a protege who has a bad experience may end up feeling like their career prospects and day-to-day experience will both suffer.

For mentors, meanwhile, bad experiences more drastically change the perception of the quality of the relationship itself. While proteges bring more emotional energy to the relationship, mentors bring more cognitive effort, time, and energy to their role. As the mentoring experience primarily serves to enhance the protege, a poor experience for a mentor can create a feeling of wasted effort. A bad mentor-protege relationship can make this expenditure of effort feel like a waste.

The Unaffected Factor: Burnout

While the relationship between burnout and mentoring has been examined, research shows that mentoring has no significant impact on the rate at which mentors burn out. Bad experiences contribute very slightly, but mentoring experiences rate low on the list of possible burnout explanations. Even when they contribute to a sense of wasted effort or weakened prospects, they don’t directly contribute to the deep-seated exhaustion associated with burnout. If significant numbers of mentoring personnel experience burnout, the mentoring itself isn’t likely to be the cause. Conversely, a mentoring program isn’t like to decrease the burnout for its participants, either.


As more and more industry leaders make mentoring a cornerstone of their organizational strategy, a solid understanding of how people become strong mentors and the benefits of good mentoring becomes an essential piece of business strategy. Industrial-organizational psychology and educational psychology provide clear perspectives on what roles mentors play in a business. Encouraging both formal and informal mentoring helps businesses succeed.

It’s not enough to hastily throw together employees and supervisors, though; almost everyone in an organization has something to offer as a mentor or a protege, and the relationships work both ways. When proteges feel as though they’ve earned a mentor’s respect and assistance beyond the minimum, they redouble their efforts in other areas as well, bringing a new zest for the job to all areas of their work.

Does your company have a mentoring program in place? Have you been a mentor, or enjoyed the mentoring of a more experienced professional at your company? Has a mentor failed you in some way, and if so, how would you change your company’s approach to mentoring to improve the results?

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