The secrets to making mentoring work

“Sometimes she just came to my office to meet, but she really hadn’t identified anything she needed my help with. It felt awkward and like a waste of time.”

Those were the words of a leader in my client’s organization who had participated in a mentoring program with a previous employer. Jessica was describing her frustration with how poorly she felt her mentee had made use of the years of experience and the insight that she had to offer.

We were discussing this as Jessica’s company was about to begin a new, yearlong mentoring program. Jessica wanted to support this effort, but she worried that it was headed down the same unsatisfying path. What would make serving as a mentor in this company different and more productive than the last time around, she wondered?

I explained to Jessica that mentoring programs work best when everyone (mentee, mentor and the entire organization) derives a benefit. Clearly, in her previous company, that hadn’t been the case. To create a difference-making, transformative experience for Jessica and others, we established the following criteria.

The program is inclusive and time-bound

The company committed to a full-year mentoring program dedicated to supporting the growth of women. To make everyone feel valued, the company opened mentee applications to anyone with a year of tenure and a good performance record.

The first-year class size was limited in order to create a deeply connected learning cohort, but women were selected from various departments and worked at all levels within the organization. That resulted in the program being viewed as accessible, rather than something open only to elite or favored employees.

Trust is established quickly

While a program that spans a year may seem like a long time, it can take months or years to build the level of trust required to fully leverage a mentor/mentee relationship. With the philosophy that transparency builds trust, we had mentors and mentees first share their deepest beliefs, values, passions and purpose with one another.

This framework gave participants insight into each other through a common “language” and accelerated the growth of their relationship. Within weeks, the pairs expressed a high level of comfort and trust that continued to grow throughout the program.

Everybody is learning — together

Many of the mentees worked in areas of the business unfamiliar to the mentors. So, by design, the mentors had an opportunity to build significant business knowledge, with their mentee serving as a learning partner. The program challenged the mentor to apply what they already knew to a new environment. The structure also required mentees and mentors to set personal development goals that they would work on throughout the year.

Both mentee and mentor were challenged to identify someone (internal or familiar) who would hold them accountable for progress toward their respective goals. Interestingly, many choose to rely on each other to keep them on track, and their bond was deepened by supporting one another’s success and growth.

Skill-building opportunities are part of the framework

Mentees participated in specific learning sessions throughout the year designed to enhance their leadership skills and build business acumen. Mentors became an integral part of the learning, as they took responsibility for reinforcing the concepts following each session. During regularly scheduled mentee/mentor meetings throughout the year, they were provided support materials to facilitate and ensure a robust discussion.

“I never felt like my mentee and I were searching for topics to talk about,” Jessica reflected. We were always enthusiastic about making time to meet again because we had so much interesting stuff to cover.”

Senior management exposure is a key design component

It isn’t sufficient to provide career guidance alone. Mentees need opportunities to interface with individuals at more senior levels who might influence their career growth.

To accomplish this with Jessica’s company, we assigned mentees to teams that worked on key business challenges identified by senior management. Those teams analyzed their issue and presented their recommendations to a council of senior leaders. This allowed mentees to demonstrate their individual capabilities and also revealed the depth of talent present within the organization. In addition to identifying talent that could be tapped for future job openings, the organization embraced a more collaborative approach to problem-solving.

As companies continue to navigate this era of the Great Resignation and employees seek more opportunities for personalized growth in order to stay engaged, effective mentoring programs will play an increasingly important role. When structured well, they foster talent retention, as well as development, and create a meaningful positive experience for everyone involved.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, October 2021.

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