There is good evidence to show that mentoring programs can deliver multiple benefits. However, programs differ and one that is perfect for another organisation may not be right for your business. So how do you develop a mentoring program that is right for you?
Introducing a mentoring program can help address:
- Difficulty in attracting the recruits you need
- Developing new recruits into productive employees
- The loss of experienced people
- Paying for training that is not paying-off in performance
To develop the appropriate mentoring program for your business, you first need to understand exactly what you want to get out of the program, and then set up the program to give you just that.
Why use a mentoring program?
The ultimate goal of all mentoring programs is to improve organisational performance. They achieve this by:
- Attracting the best recruits and retaining them as long as possible. This is no mean feat as most of these recruits are Gen Ys - born in the 80s, typically big spenders, eager for advancement and only loyal to employers who will help them advance quickly through the ranks
- Developing raw recruits into productive employees by applying knowledge gained from their education and training to real work situations. For this reason, a mentoring program is often part of a cadetship or graduate development program
- Retaining experienced managers and professionals and ensure that their wisdom and tacit knowledge is passed on to younger staff before their retirement
- Addressing equity issues by providing development opportunities to particular groups within the organisation
Individual mentoring programs differ both in the importance they place on each of these objectives and the strategies they use to achieve them.
What are mentoring programs?
Informal mentoring has been around for a very long time. It involves the pairing of one person with limited or no experience (the mentee) with a more experienced person (the mentor) in a relationship that enables the mentee to develop new skills and knowledge.
Over this time, two distinct types of mentoring evolved. These are:
- Mentoring that focuses primarily on the mentee's medium- to long-term career development
- Mentoring that focuses primarily on directly improving the mentee's productivity in their current workplace
While many of these mentoring relationships were very successful, others failed. Failure stemmed from the fact that the mentors were predominately self-selected and unsupported in the mentoring process. Hence, they may have been technically incompetent or bad role models or did not understand how to mentor effectively.
Modern mentoring programs formalise these practices to both capture their benefits, and avoid any pitfalls resulting from their application in today's more complex organisations. For instance, formalisation ensures that:
- Mentoring can be offered as part of a management or professional development program, thus establishing the important link between education, training and real work
- Mentees have access to ongoing confidential support
- Mentors can be trained in mentoring practices
- A mentoring program can be evaluated on a regular basis and adapted as necessary to align with mentor/mentee needs and organisational priorities
- Mentoring programs can also assist succession planning by providing opportunities for mentors to pass on tacit knowledge and specific skills
- Mentoring programs help retain the more experienced staff who become mentors. This is because they very often enjoy being a mentor and are therefore less likely to be poached by your competitors and may even decide to retire later than they intended
Mentoring programs focussed on career development
These constitute most of the mentoring programs in place today, and are commonly known as facilitated mentoring programs.
Their primary focus is on career development, and this development may extend beyond the mentee's current job to work in other departments or with future employers. As this focus directly appeals to the Gen Y's thirst for career development, that will fast track their advancement, they are often used in graduate development programs to attract and retain the very best graduates.
It is a long-term strategy in that it requires the employer to invest considerable resources up-front in the expectation that the superior performance of these mentees as they progress up the hierarchy (and possibly out of the organisation) will improve organisational performance.
- Mentors tend to be Senior Managers (from either the same or another organisation)
- The purpose is likely to be management or leadership development
- Mentor and mentee agree on development goals for the mentee
- Identify issues relating to the mentee's current job
- Identify career development issues that may affect their achievement
- The mentor then advises the mentee of strategies that will help them achieve their goals. These strategies vary across programs and individuals. Some of these strategies include:
- Directly advising the mentee on how to deal with an issue
- Recommending training
- Providing experience in use of relevant skills
- Using the mentor's influence or contacts to identify or create learning opportunities for the mentee
- They then meet regularly, so that the mentor can check on progress and advise the mentee
Mentoring programs focussed on improving mentee productivity
The difference between these programs and facilitated mentoring, is that the main focus of these programs is on directly improving the productivity of the mentee, by enabling them to apply knowledge gained from education and training to real work situations. There is therefore a relatively quick return on the expense of setting up this type of mentoring program.
They appeal to new recruits who have recently graduated and are eager to apply their knowledge and skills to real work. They are particularly attractive to, and suitable for, mentees who are seeking professional rather than management development.
- Mentors are either direct managers or experienced fellow workers of the mentees
- Much of the mentoring occurs directly in the workplace
- Mentoring methods empower the mentee to correctly follow work procedures and understand and act on events they experience in the workplace
These methods have been used to successfully mentor a diversity of mentees, ranging from medical staff, lawyers and community service providers to manufacturing workers.
Which mentoring program is right for you
It all depends on what you want it to achieve. If you need your mentees to quickly develop their professional rather than management skills, I would suggest the focus on improving productivity. On the other hand, if your business is in need of management or leadership skills, the focus on career development would suit you better as well as help you attract some very bright people. You could also explore options that enable you to get the benefits of both.
For instance, your program could commence with the focus on improving productivity with the offer that after completion, some (or all) would have the opportunity of career-focussed mentoring. This should result in managers who are both professionally and managerially competent and help you attract high performing recruits to your organisation.
What makes a mentoring program successful
Your mentoring program will be successful if the following are true:
- Stakeholders are committed to program objectives
This is extremely important, as despite its many benefits, mentoring does have short-term costs: It requires both mentors and mentees to take significant amounts of time out from their normal work and a budget for set up, ongoing support and periodic evaluation of the program. Stakeholders need to be committed to its success if they are to accept these costs.
Senior Management support for, and leadership of, the program is absolutely essential. Mentors, mentees and managers of mentees also need to understand and accept their roles, responsibilities and relationships in the mentoring process.
- Mentors have people skills, are good communicators and are trained in mentoring processes
While a mentor may have a wealth of knowledge, unless they also have these skills, they may not be able pass this knowledge on to the mentee. This needs to be taken into account when selecting and training mentors.
- Mentor and mentee establish a relationship that supports learning
Within this relationship, the mentor creates a safe, confidential place for mentoring to take place, and variously trains, coaches, challenges and nurtures the mentee, acts as a sounding board for their ideas, introduces them to new experiences or contacts and discourages dependency.
The mentee takes responsibility for their own development, commits to achievement of goals or competencies, is open to new ideas and learns how to resolve their own problems.
- Mentees have frequent quality access to mentors
No matter how much knowledge the mentor has to share, and how adept they are at mentoring, the mentoring process will break down if insufficient time is given to it. This must also be quality time; free from interruptions and in an environment that supports learning.
- The program is regularly evaluated and results used for continuous improvement
This will ensure that the program can be adjusted, as necessary, to continue to satisfy mentee and mentor needs and keep it aligned with organisational priorities.
- The program is supported
Usually a consultant is engaged to help set up the mentoring program and to evaluate it, when needed. Their role may include setting up meetings between mentor or mentee, administrative support and resolving issues between stakeholders, etc. They also act as a contact point should more professional support be needed.