Question: Kickstarting a mentorship program

To retain and develop our mid-level managers and other employees who show leadership potential, we are thinking of implementing a mentorship program. Eventually, to be operational across all divisions in a 500+ employee company.

Since this is not the first time we have tried a program like this, we are thinking of incubating the program in one division, and building on its success/ learnings after 6 months.

One complexity- our company has grown through several acquisitions, not all senior managers are best mentors for our core values.

I will love to hear from those who have hands-on experience in implementing a mentorship program.

9 Expert Insights

With mentoring programs I have managed in the past, I always ensure that participation is voluntary.  Both potential mentors and proteges are asked to complete an application.  The protege applicants are asked to indicate the areas of expertise they wish to gain, the amount of time they are willing to devote to a mentoring relationship, and what outcomes they anticipate.  The mentor applicants are asked to indicate the areas of expertise they would like to share, the amount of time per month they are willing to devote to a mentoring relationship, and the outcomes that they anticipate.  With this information, it is very easy for the program manager to match suitable mentors/proteges.  When sending an invitation to participate to potential mentors or proteges, I do let them know that the match is based on the interest/expertise of the potential mentors and the development needs of the proteges.  Therefore, they may be matched early on in the program or the match may come later.

This is a scaled-down approach, but it does ensure that you are getting quality both in mentors and proteges.  

I have other suggestions also, if you would like to discuss.

Good luck!

I agree with Susan. I've had experience with mentorship programs where there is not the same care she describes around matching the skill and availability of the mentor with the needs of the mentee, and the results were very disappointing. But when done right, the results are well worth the effort.

This is a great way to keep your most valuable employees.

Congratulations on making leadership development a priority in your company, and on recognizing mentoring as a valuable means of providing such development. Since you indicate having previously tried a mentorship program, perhaps the place to begin is to review lessons learned from your own experience - what worked that you can build on, what didn't work and why. It might be helpful to go outside of your senior leadership and get input from many, if not all, of those who had previously participated.

Since you refer to having tried a mentorship program in the past tense, it seems that program has not been an ongoing success. Your company may, therefore, view your current attempt with more skepticism. It will be important for your leadership team to acknowledge what went wrong, accept responsibility, and communicate why you expect this time to be different.

The issue of not all senior managers being the best mentors for your core values sets off the alarms. You may want to consider sequencing your initiatives and addressing alignment of your management team first. Major change initiatives are major challenges. The odds are stacked against you in the absence of organizational readiness, and a lack of alignment regarding core values makes such readiness virtually impossible.

A mentorship program can be very effective in developing leadership skills among those employees who have developed rudimentary Social Emotional Intelligence, especially self awareness and self acceptance.  (Not everyone with leadership potential will benefit from a relationship with a mentor.)

The most successful programs have these specific rules:
1. The mentor is NOT in a reporting/accountability line above the mentee.

2. The mentee requests the specific mentor (from a list of those who are available.)  The mentor can accept or reject the request without explanation.

3. The mentee controls the subject agenda.  Both recognize: “help is something for which one must ask.  Other-wise, it is not help, it is control.”

4. The mentors have a few hours of training in understanding the boundaries and structure of a successful and productive mentor/mentee relationship.  There is a definite difference between being a consultant/advisor, a coach or a mentor.  It is important to the success of the program that everyone understands these boundaries.

My frame comes from the curiosity of the quality of the mentoring so I have a series of questions for you to consider

1. How will you 'vet' the mentors?   What I mean is you mentioned that not all senior managers will make good mentors and I agree so I'm curious about how you go about getting a mentor that is approved of and what the process for that discernment might be.

2. What training will your mentors get in mentor?  To assume that just because someone is a good manager that automatically makes them a good mentor is missing that mentoring and managing are two completely different being/doing equations. Most managers attempt to make direct reports into clones of themselves rather that listen sufficiently enough and asking enough questions to help the mentee integrate general principles in a custom way.  If your mentoring process is merely a 'best practices' conversation then you might as well just write them all down and have the mentees read it. Mentoring is a living interaction and requires something more akin to coaching than mere information transfer. It requires the mentor having enough respect for the intelligence, skillset and mindset of the mentee to help them by sharing information and helping them fit it to their personal's a question of the mentor saying "here are some principles that have been valuable in success in our company, now how do you want to apply those principles in your own unique way" vs. "here's the path and you need to follow it step by step because I succeeded with it and so should you."

3. What would designate a mentor has crossed a line somehow?  I'm not talking about sexual harassment  line crossing but rather personal boundary line crossing. The mentor program automatically creates a hierarchical relationship and the mentor can often assume liberties of conversation or seeking to impose their will with a mentee who is in a more strategically vulnerable position.

4. What are the company policies on confidentiality?

Glad to assist as best I can: I produced and delivered a "Workshop For Mentors" program for a multi-cultural, global consumer products company that provided participants with:

(1) a detailed overview of the organization's mentoring process, one that was based on 4 cultural values that every organizational unit, including a number who had been acquired, subscribed to;
(2) a rationale for the program based on the success that similar companies had using mentoring as an onboarding and development tool;
(3) a history of mentoring;
(4) the benefits to be realized by the mentor, the associate and the organization;
(5) the distinct phases of a mentoring relationship, and the elements found in each;
(6) the skills required to build and sustain a solid mentoring relationship;
(7) strategies and tactics to ensure that meaningful learning will occur;
(8) specific guidelines for conducting the initial mentoring discussion and all subsequent discussions;
(9) problems typically encountered and how to handle them;
(10) how to initially engage the associate, and keep him/her engaged;
(11) how to be more "ask-assertive" and coach-like when mentoring;  and
(12) how to measure, enhance and sustain the associate's fulfillment and thereby maximize the ROI from the mentoring process, all in a workshop designed to provide participants with as much time engaged in practice exercises as that spent absorbing necessary content.  The program was deemed to be quite successful, further enhanced by my providing follow-up coaching for individual mentors as they continued to be engaged in the mentoring process.

I would be pleased to share more with you as you wish and/or simply provide answers to any questions that might ultimately lead you to developing the best program for your particular situation.

Introducing a mentoring program in your company will be very valuable as long as you follow some rules.
1.The mentors have to have experience in the area that they will be mentoring others. In other words if you are planning leadership mentoring, you have to select leaders with proven leadership skills
2. The mentors responsibility should be to take advantage of what the person he/she will mentor already knows. This part is similar to coaching,
3. Starting the mentoring program first in one division and than spreading it across the entire company is a good policy
4. The individual to be mentor should agree to be mentored. If not it will not work. This is also similar to coaching
5.It is better if the mentor does not have a reporting relationship with the individual he/she will mentor..

Several good suggestions made by my associate mentors above.  To me, and at the risk of duplication, the following are key steps that will contribute to a successful program:

1.  I would NOT suggest that you do this by division as a given.  What is more important is that your 'beta' group be assembled because you believe all participants have the 'right' attitude and enthusiasm for what they are about to conquer.  In fact,  finding a group of ideal participants that are spread throughout the organization will do much to create general interest and awareness of the effort which can serve your intended expansion of it very well.  If you find this within just one division, that's fine however this wouldn't be my suggestion for making up this initial effort.

2.  I definitely agree that you should conduct a session for the selected mentors that would be designed to define and guide the group as to how they are to conduct their role.  Standardization among all, in terms of how they see and conduct their role as mentor,  is very important as I have found ... so that you have this group conducting their 'mentoring' in a similar manner following similar practices.  Where an organization does NOT do this can easily lead to different results simply because the defining of how the mentor carries out the role and the responsibilities is left to individual judgment.

3. The selection of those to be mentored should also be influenced by the willingness, openness and attitude of those who will be selected.  This is not the time to convince someone they will benefit and that they really need this.

4. It is of value when the person being mentored is in agreement with i.e. their 'boss' as to the areas wherein they have room to grow and develop stronger skills.  thus they come to mentoring with agreed upon objectives for the mentor to follow.

5. Finally how you match mentor and with client can be done in various ways.  Above all, the match should be seen as workable by both.

Wow, lots of great info here.

Check out the HBA (Healthcare Businesswomens Association), for a great mentor program model.  They set up pods: two leaders, and 4-5 mentees--actually, a lot of co-mentoring going on.  A wealth of insight, good return to input ratio, and everyone learned from everyone (including leaders; I did that twice).  A side benefit: helping mentees become mentors.

Reach out if this is interesting and you want to know more.  I'd be happy to connect you to the people who put this together.