Mentoring is a well-established corporate practice. According to the Association for Talent Development (ATD), 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies have formal mentorship programs, while many more support informal initiatives. Mentoring offers many benefits to participants and organizations. This article provides practical suggestions and actionable tips for managers interested in establishing a successful mentoring program.
Why mentoring matters
Mentoring programs deliver valuable advantages to organizations. A well-designed mentoring program can:
- Develop future leaders
- Support personal and professional growth
- Impart new skills
- Retain or pass along important organizational knowledge
- Improve workplace engagement and morale
- Boost employee retention and loyalty
- Serve as a valuable onboarding tool
- Provide a competitive advantage in a tight labor market
Mentoring also offers profound benefits for employees. According to research from mentoring software firm River, 90 percent of workers participating in a mentoring program said it helped them develop a positive relationship with another individual in the company; 89 percent said it allowed them to contribute to the success of their company; and 94 percent believe that a mentoring program demonstrates an organization’s commitment to provide career options and opportunities. Eighty-three percent admitted that their mentoring experience positively influenced their desire to stay at their organization.
There are many considerations to ponder prior to officially launching a workplace mentoring program. These include:
- The type of program to offer: The most traditional is one-on-one peer mentoring. In this scenario, mentors and mentees are paired for a period of time and given the opportunity to work together without a defined agenda. In group mentoring, an expert facilitates a series of sessions with a group or team focusing on a particular issue, such as management training or leadership development. With project mentoring, an expert might be brought in to lend expertise to a specific project, such as a marketing campaign or a product launch. Less common is reverse mentoring, where lower-level employees provide guidance or insight to higher-level employees, and flash mentoring, which features a speed-dating format.
- Whether it should be formal or informal: There are pros and cons to each approach. Although formal programs provide structure and accountability, the interactions can feel forced. Informal programs allow participants to define the logistics, but they run the risk of disintegrating. Whichever style is adopted, create a corporate culture where mentorship is valued and respected.
- How enrollment should be handled: The program could be open to all or restricted to specific groups, such as managers or employees with a year or more of seniority. Decide whether the program will be invitation-only or require potential participants to go through an application process.
- Duration: Pairings should not stretch on indefinitely. Define the duration of the relationship in advance. Will it be a single session, a period of weeks, or a series of months?
- Budgeting: Make sure there is funding available for the program. The cost to establish and run a workplace mentoring program is generally low because most of the resources already exist within the company.
- Getting stakeholders on board: Key leaders must be educated on the benefits and strategic value of a mentoring program. Enticing a key leader to serve as a mentor is an added coup.
- Defining the goal(s): Develop a concrete set of key performance indicators (KPIs) that will enable management to quantify the success of the program at its completion. Examples of KPIs might be lower turnover, more advancement opportunities for women, and/or improving minority retention rates.
- Develop a marketing plan to recruit participants: Focus on inclusivity. Target leaders from different divisions of the company and make sure mentors represent different ages, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds.
Matching mentors and mentees to each other is not a simple process. “Matching is often one of the most challenging aspects of a program. Participants will bring various competencies, backgrounds, learning styles, and needs. A great match for one person may be a bad match for another,” notes mentoring software company Chronus in an eBook, How to Start a High-Impact Mentoring Program.
Here are some tips to ease the matching process:
- Consider the program goal(s), and make matches based upon desired outcomes. For example: If the goal is to onboard a new employee in the call center, match him or her with a department veteran. If the goal is management training, pair a new manager with a more seasoned one—regardless of their assigned departments.
- Create an ongoing user profile database to cross-reference potential matches. Include information such as gender, job function, development goals, experiences, college, outside interests, and matching preferences.
- Remember that mentors and protégés do not necessarily need to work out of the same office in order to be matched. Technology can easily connect them if geography or time zones separate them.
- If a more casual process is desired, allow participants to match themselves. Have mentors and mentees fill out forms about what they hope to offer or gain from a relationship. Post the forms on a physical or virtual board, and encourage participants to contact each other directly.
- A recent study by Heidrick & Struggles found that employees tend to seek out mentors who resemble themselves. Be aware of gender and ethnic diversity when creating matches. Women and people of color may prefer mentors with similar backgrounds; however, there may not be enough of them to go around. One solution is to assign two mentees to each minority mentor.
- Outside vendors can optimize the matching process using algorithms, psychological quizzes, and other tools. They can also offer ongoing follow-up—sending engagement reminders to participants, allowing administrators to track progress, and surveying participants about their experiences.
Nurturing the mentor/mentee relationship
For managers, the key to a successful mentoring program is nurturing the organic relationships that form between mentors and mentees. Below is some useful advice that managers can impart to each group.
Advice for mentors
Mentors may be reluctant to commit to a mentorship program due to time constraints. Allay their concerns by establishing boundaries around how much time is expected. This is especially important when trying to attract the participation of high-level executives.
Mentors may worry whether they actually have anything worthwhile to share. They should be assured that their expertise is valued. If they have been with the organization for a long time, they can share a corporate historical perspective, as well as advice.
Remind them that being a mentor enhances their portfolio, and that this volunteer work can be added to their LinkedIn profiles and resumes. Also, emphasize that they may actually learn from the relationship. Their mentee could serve as a sounding board, provide new insights, or inspire them to think more deeply about a new subject.
Mentors must take their roles seriously. Remind them to listen carefully and take notes when meeting with mentees. Make sure they understand enough about their mentee’s job function in order to provide actionable advice.
In addition to holding ongoing conversations, mentors can help mentees by role-playing and providing candid feedback after observing them in action.
Advice for mentees
Although a mentorship can be an incredible career accelerator, finding the right mentor can be a process. Encourage mentees to be patient.
Require mentees to develop agendas for their meetings, sharing them in advance with their mentors. Remind them to arrive promptly, armed with any data, metrics, slide decks, etc. for which they seek guidance.
Honesty is crucial in order for the relationship to flourish. Encourage mentees to be open and forthright about their problems and vulnerabilities.
Coach mentees to ask specific questions. Encourage them to make their meetings count by focusing on one practical topic at a time, and warn them against wasting time discussing general or vague issues.
Establish best practices for working together
Stage a formal meeting where mentors and mentees can meet virtually or in person. Prior to this meeting, ask both parties to outline their expectations, what they hope to gain from their relationship, and how they will hold themselves accountable. Have them come to a verbal or written agreement.
Without direction, mentoring relationships can lose focus and momentum. Here are some best practices for providing guidance and structure:
- Encourage mentors and mentees to focus on specific problems or challenges. It might be the launch of a new product, the build out of a design team, or effective management of an underperformer.
- Clarify that mentors are not there to “fix” problems. Instead, their role is to help mentees consider various options and devise their own solutions.
- Mentors should avoid assigning “homework” to mentees. Instead, they should address what the mentee has accomplished between meetings.
- Unfortunately, sometimes mentorships fail. To assure compatibility and provide a natural exit if a match is not ideal, set an initial commitment of perhaps two weeks to allow both parties to determine if chemistry exists.
- An article posted on Fortune.com details research showing that “male managers are three times as likely to say that they are uncomfortable mentoring women, and twice as uncomfortable working alone with a woman.” Provide safe workplace havens for mentors and mentees of the opposite sex to meet.
- Continually champion your mentorship program, highlighting successes and sharing inspiring mentoring stories. Consider a formal recognition strategy that champions mentors and encourages new ones to volunteer.
Like all workplace initiatives, mentoring programs should be tracked, measured, and assessed. Metrics and feedback can be captured throughout the program cycle. Even if a program is informal, the act of reporting progress will help participants stay productive.
Evaluate a variety of metrics. Is the mentoring timeframe too long, too short, or just right? Are mentorships progressing along smoothly or lagging? Are participants utilizing provided content resources?
According to the Chronus eBook, metrics should be built around sound business objectives.
“In a diversity mentoring program you may want to compare promotion rates of program participants to nonparticipants,” it notes. “Also track conversion metrics, which show the progress participants make at each step of the mentoring program starting at enrollment. Conversion metrics provide essential insight into program health.”
As each mentoring cycle closes, reflect upon what was learned. Solicit feedback from participants and stakeholders through surveys. Ask for ideas to improve the program.
Managers interested in establishing a successful mentoring program may derive encouragement from a study that explored the value of mentoring at Sun Microsystems. Researchers examined data from more than 1,000 employees over a five-year period.
The study, as reported in the Chronus eBook, found “Twenty-five percent of employees in a test group who took part in the company’s mentoring program had a salary grade change, compared with five percent of employees in a control group who did not participate in the program. Mentors were promoted six times more often than those not in the program; mentees were promoted five times more often than those not in the program. In addition retention rates were much higher for mentees (72 percent) and mentors (69 percent) than for employees who did not participate in the mentoring program (49 percent).”