How to Start a Mentoring Program

Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about mentoring in the workplace. How to be a good mentor, how to be a good protégé, how to find a mentor/protégé, what a mentor should be doing, how often mentors should meet with their protégés, and the like. Many of these inquiries, however, come in the context of a company’s mentoring program, which makes the answers dependent upon the parameters and goals of the program. But, after hearing about so many failing mentorship programs, and so many companies wanting to start good ones, I figured I would provide a summary of my advice based on my research and consulting.

First, it’s crucial to define what a mentor is:

A mentor is a more experienced individual who engages in a dyadic, long-term relationship with a less-experienced novice (protégé) that is focused on transmitting the knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) that are consonant with positive development and effective practice in a personal and professional context. [1, 2, 3]

Many people and companies take only parts of this definition, focusing only on specific aspects of the construct. In turn, this means the relationship isn’t really mentor-protégé, and whatever studies are being used to guide the creation, development, and evaluation of the program should be applied with caution.

Whether the “mentoring” program includes full-on mentoring or not, here are some guidelines for how to create an advisory program in the company.

1) Define the outcomes of the program

The goals of an advisory program can vary widely, ranging from having a more senior buddy in the company to go to with questions all the way to a full-on mentor. While it would be nice to create full mentor-protégé relationships throughout the company, this is far more difficult than it sounds, and is often well-nigh impossible. After musing over this ideal, it is critical to drill down to the actual outcomes the company wants to see, and how it wants to measure these outcomes. Be very careful in the measurement, however, as many human interactions are not quantifiable, and those that are tend to underspecify reality.

2) Compile a list of volunteers for the program

If you plan to make being a member of the program compulsory, kill the idea. Now. Participation in an advisory program should never be compulsory, and those who do not heed this warning will most certainly lose personnel at best, and at worst end up in a brutal lawsuit over the consequences of a bad relationship that was forcibly instantiated by the company. Feel free to provide incentives to join, and lots of encouragement, but do not even come close to suggesting that someone’s continued employment depends upon participation.

3) Create a way for participants to select each other organically

Participants in an advisory program should always be given the opportunity to create relationships that are desired by both parties. There are many ways to give people a way to meet potential advisors/advisees, but the key is never to assign relationships. This may mean that some eager participants will not get an advisor/advisee. This happens, and if you really want to help in such a case you should be providing guidance on how to find the right connection outside of the company (relationships with other firms, such as vendors, are very helpful here).

4) Provide guidance on how to make the most of the advisory relationship

Many people are new to advisory relationships, so it’s important to provide some advice and even formal guidance on how to develop the relationship so that the goals of the program are met. Give suggestions for discussions, activities, and meeting frequencies that can provide a framework for rookie advisors/advisees. Keep in mind, however, that these are suggestions and whether they are followed should not be indicative of the success/failure of the dyad. Human relationships are an organic construct, and not fully quantifiable. As such, allow for deviance from the guidelines.

5) Follow up on all advisory relationships and get some feedback on whether they are successful

Using the goals of the program as a baseline, survey the dyads to see if the program is accomplishing its mission. Regardless of whether you get formal responses, check in with every participant in the program to confirm that things are going well. If not, make sure you have a pulse on why. In all non-negative cases, let the relationships take their courses and always remember not to try forcing relationships that aren’t working. Again: any form of compulsion in an advisory program will most certainly yield a negative outcome. It is important to remember that, no matter the advisory program, full success is almost an impossibility, and anything over 50% is amazing.

6) Use feedback to tweak the program and provide continuous updates and resources to participants

Over time, you will have new ideas and developments for the program, and you should feel free to send updates and give existing dyads the option of moving with the changes (remember that their advisory relationships started on a different basis!). It is perfectly acceptable to scrap a program and rebuild it (leave any successes where they are, though, and keep supporting them!). In addition, remember to keep advisory relationships well-stocked with any resources that will facilitate their pursuit of the program’s outcomes. This can be anything from meeting rooms, to food, to access to senior people and/or advisors that can provide insights to the advisory dyad.

7) Track additional progress and developments

Good advisory relationships tend have a number of ancillary positive benefits, including greater employee engagement, reduced turnover, higher presenteeism, better performance, willingness to volunteer for the company, faster times to promotion, and more. Keep an eye out for these results and make sure that the company celebrates them.

Sources

1) Bozeman, B., & Feeney, M.K. (2007). Toward a useful theory of mentoring a conceptual analysis and critique. Administration & Society, 39(6), 719–739. (link)

2) Kram, K.E. (1988). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman. (link)

3) Nakamura, J., Shernoff, D. J., & Hooker, C. H. (2009). Good mentoring: Fostering excellent practice in higher education. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. (link)

The author thanks Joanna Strick for feedback on an earlier version of this article.

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.

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