The Fast Are Eating the Slow: Mentoring for Leadership Development as a Competitive Method

June 10, 2014
An organization sees a need for leadership development. Does it turn to external training, coaching, or mentoring to achieve their goals?

The answer has usually been one of the first two, the philosophy being that traditional training and coaching programs are better-suited to develop high-potentials in targeted ways. But today, HR departments are hindered by two things: a) fear of a low-performing economy, which leads to cut talent development initiatives, including training and coaching programs, and b) a business world moving faster than many organizations can keep pace with.

In other words: the fast are eating the slow, and it’s a direct result of underdeveloped employees without leadership skills.

It comes as no surprise to us that mentoring is emerging as one of the most popular strategies for leadership development, partly because of its cost-effectiveness, and partly because of its strategic effectiveness. Chief among mentoring’s benefits is that it relies almost completely on internal resources, including internally sourced mentors. Compared to the higher costs of externally-sourced trainers and coaches, this method is quite affordable to most organizations. Perhaps more importantly, each mentors’ knowledge capital isn’t solely restricted to the skills involved in their job. The organizational culture and behaviors with which they are surrounded are very much a part of the way they perform their job. In this way, mentoring as a leadership development method provides the means to clarify and solidify organizational culture; raise engagement, retention and company loyalty; and foster organizational growth.

Let us be clear as we proceed: we will be discussing formal, rather than informal, mentoring for the duration of this article. Formal mentoring is a business and organizational strategy, with a strong plan and defined goals behind it both before implementation as well as during the program.

Yet more than a strategy, formal mentoring for leadership development can be a point of competition if leveraged correctly in an organization. We co-presented a webinar in which we discussed two case studies – one from each of our organizations – concerning the development and implementation of mentoring programs for organizational leadership development, as described below.

Case Study: No Succession Pipeline

Ms. Corner’s client, a leading global pharmaceutical company, found themselves without a succession plan and leaders for the future. They were fortunate in that they caught the problem before losing contracts – a situation which will later be discussed in Mr. Prentice’s case study.

Ms. Corner consulted with them to determine first a short-term 3-year plan to satisfy immediate leadership development needs, and then set a vision for the longer-term future in an 8-to-10-year plan. Among the steps Ms. Corner worked with them to take were:

  • Identifying the skills/competencies necessary for the short-term future.
  • Using assessments to determine skill/competency gaps.
  • Qualifying mentors based on organizational leadership skills and competencies required for the future, ensuring that all mentors are willing and able to be effective.
  • Identifying high-potentials through their direct managers and assigning them to mentors according to their skill/competency gaps.


Over a 3-year period, the results proved the program’s worth. 32% of the organization’s high potentials moved into more senior leadership roles. Because the mentees attained higher levels of competency as a result of the mentoring program, they were able to take on higher-level roles and perform well in them.

Training expenditures were also reduced. This was a direct result of capitalizing on internal knowledge capital, passed from mentors to mentees, rather than relying on external trainers and coaches. Much of the knowledge that the mentees needed could be relayed by the mentors within the organization, allowing the mentees to relate to the examples given. Those mentors were also able to put that that knowledge in terms of culture and processes specific to the organization in ways trainers and coaches simply couldn’t.

This is not to say traditional training should be eliminated – but in many cases the necessary skills and practical application is better taught by a mentor who is already very familiar with the skills they’re teaching, and the way they will eventually be used within the organization.

Finally, employee surveys indicated higher levels of both engagement and job satisfaction. This was directly attributed to two things. First, the mentoring program allowed for practical application of the skills the mentees were learning in real world situations. Second, it enabled individual mentees to understand what was specifically required for them to transition into a larger role within that organization.

Case Study: Lost Business Due to Lack of Leadership Depth

Fuel Learning’s client, one of Europe’s largest logistics and supply chain organizations, lost a £160 million ($251 million) contract as a direct result of the fact that the organization had no leadership development initiative in place. Their prospect cited it as a deal breaker: because they didn’t see evidence that the logistics and supply chain organization had strong leadership management, the prospect became concerned that if they signed the contract, the logistics company would simply promote unqualified employees to fill the necessary leadership roles as they came into existence.

The organization who did win the contract, on the other hand, had a strong talent development program in place.

The logistics organization recognized that this was not only an unsustainable path, but a noncompetitive one. Among the steps Fuel Learning helped them take were:

  • Designing and implementing a talent management program with mentoring at the heart of it.
  • Making mentoring a key feature in all their talent development efforts, and at all levels of the organization.
  • Training mentors in their role in the program, ensuring that they knew both what to do, as well as the organizational goals – regardless of seniority.
  • Training mentees to know what they could expect, and how to get the best use out of the program and the mentoring partnership.
There is a common perception that mentoring for leadership development, like coaching, is often limited to higher levels of organization. This shouldn’t be the case. Fuel Learning’s client found that many high-potentials at all levels of the organization have managed to leapfrog levels due to having had good mentoring to drive and support their development.

Furthermore, mentoring is a knowledge-sharing method, which makes it especially valuable for organizations developing leaders for their succession pipeline. Fuel Learning’s client specifically chose mentoring as a development method, as opposed to the more traditional options of coaching and training, in order for mentees to gain an understanding of not just the skills, but also the relationships, processes, and culture related to their career trajectories within the company.

The results were remarkable: the client has won, to date, £260 million ($408 million) in contracts because of their talent development program. Additionally, they now use talent development as a key market differentiator, reporting that speaking about their mentoring program in client sales meetings sets them apart from their competitors. In fact, the success of their talent development program is starting to transform their industry. Their competitors are taking note of the speed of their growth, as it is far outstripping the competitors’.

Lastly, they now have leaders who can move at a faster pace. Their leaders are no longer lagging behind the pace of the rapidly changing world, and the organization no longer needs to promote unprepared employees to positions of leadership out of necessity.

Successful Leadership Development and the Ability to Compete

This returns us to our original point: the fast are eating the slow. Organizations simply cannot afford to put off leadership development efforts. Doing so leads to a lack of leaders at times when leaders are most needed. Lack of leadership, after all, will eventually mean more than a few high-profile contracts lost, as traumatic as that is for an organization. A lack of leaders means organizational directionlessness and eventual failure. This isn’t a new idea; yet why do organizations fall into the trap of saving money by cutting talent development programs? Cutting talent and leadership development out of the budget is a fear-driven move that will curtail any organization’s ability to compete in the long run.

However, far be it from us to discredit the necessity of addressing immediate organizational concerns in favor of starry-eyed long-term dreaming. If you’re doing it right, after all, there should be nothing starry-eyed about it. Think of it this way: the short-term plan should be the bridge to the long-term plan. Organizations that plan only for the immediate future and not the long-term do so at the risk of losing competitiveness and viability.

But if organizational objectives are pursued with consistency of purpose through the immediate and the long-term, instilling leadership development within overall organizational culture, mentoring for leadership development can become more than just a selling point or a developmental strategy: it can become a point of competition. Leaders developing leaders ad infinitum. Imagine the ways that organization could grow.

We said there should be nothing starry-eyed about mentoring as a business strategy, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't dream.

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