The Whys and Hows of Mentoring

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Monday, January 31, 2022
By Bert Thornton, Sherry Hartnett
Photo by iStock/stockstudioX
A mentorship program can help a company create a productive and engaged workforce—but it has to be done right.
  • During a time when employees are resigning in large numbers, mentorship programs help retain workers.
  • Mentoring emphasizes counseling and support, while coaching focuses on providing practical skills.
  • Programs will be successful only if they’re well-planned, with clear objectives and assessment metrics in place.

As the pandemic enters its third year, many companies are suffering the twin effects of the Great Resignation and ongoing talent shortages. While many human resources departments are focusing on recruitment efforts to shore up their workforces, they might have more success with a different strategy: mentoring the employees they already have.

There’s no better time to launch a formal mentoring program. It’s one of the most powerful things companies can do to create a more productive, engaged, and committed workforce—and quite simply, few leaders can afford not to pursue that goal.

Today’s employees are looking for connection and feedback at their jobs. They want to work for companies that take an active interest in their growth and development, they want to feel valued, and they want the opportunity to develop strong relationships with their leaders.

A formal mentoring program checks all those boxes. It allows companies to connect knowledgeable managers with rising high achievers. It also helps companies attract and retain talent, improve employee satisfaction, drive organizational performance, build a deep bench, and reduce training budgets. Effective mentoring encourages and nurtures mentees by enhancing their knowledge, expertise, and attitudes, enabling them to grow and develop.

A formal mentoring program is one of the most powerful things companies can do to create a more productive, engaged, and committed workforce.

But business leaders shouldn’t confuse mentoring with coaching. Mentoring emphasizes counseling, supporting, and introducing, while coaching focuses on providing practical application and teaching skills. Think of it this way: The difference between coaching and mentoring is the same as the difference between training and development. Coaching is more about training to task, while mentoring is about developing people to their full potential.

Seven Essential Steps

Although a mentoring program can be a great way to develop promising employees, unless the initiative is well-planned and well-organized, it can have disappointing results. Here are four common reasons why such a program could fail:

  • There isn’t enough buy-in at the top.
  • It was thrown together by overextended and overwhelmed people who have never built a mentoring program.
  • Participants did not receive enough training.
  • The company mandated that people participate.

Our new book, High-Impact Mentoring: A Practical Guide to Creating Value in Other People’s Lives, lays out seven vital steps leaders need to follow to build a solid mentoring program from the ground up:

Step 1: Define your “why.” Decide what you want your program to achieve. For instance, do you want to increase the number of minorities in leadership positions, retain valuable employees, or onboard high-potential new hires? When you articulate how mentoring will improve your organization, you can thoughtfully shape a successful program and get buy-in from leaders, mentors, mentees, and other stakeholders.

Step 2: Find the right program champion. The person who heads up the program will have a profound impact on its strategy, execution, and success. Because running the program is such a large task, it should be made the employee’s primary focus, not simply added to an existing workload.

The best champion will be an opportunity-focused connector who is confident, tenacious, and accountable. Put a lot of thought into this decision, because it will make or break your program.

Step 3: Set goals and metrics. Align your mentoring program with your business objectives and identify metrics you can use to measure movement toward those goals. For instance, you might want to increase top-employee retention by 10 percent from last year or double the number of women in management positions within 18 months.

Tracking this data will tell you whether your program is succeeding and what you may need to change. It will also tangibly illustrate to senior leaders why mentoring should be a continued priority.

Align your mentoring program with your business objectives and identify metrics you can use to measure movement toward those goals.

Step 4: Don’t simply dive in; prepare thoroughly before launch. Before the first mentor-mentee pair meets, you should secure the necessary funding, staff, and supplies. Have systems in place for selecting mentors and mentees, training and communicating with participants, and evaluating the program. It’s okay to start with a small pilot program to work out any kinks.

Step 5: Recruit and connect. Actively seek out, screen, and train great mentors, but don’t make it compulsory for senior leaders to join the mentoring program. Likewise, decide what your ideal mentees look like—for instance, you might focus on high-potential new hires or people who have been with the organization at least three years. Then, determine how long participants should expect to commit to the program. We suggest a renewable 12-month period, but each company needs to find its own optimum timeframe.

Only then should you begin matching mentors and mentees, striving to pair those who have common interests. Both parties must understand up front what the length of the mentorship will be, how often meetings will take place, what the goals are, and that there will be work involved.

Step 6: Provide plenty of ongoing support. Nurture both the mentors and mentees by organizing keynote speakers, setting up networking events, and publishing a regular newsletter. Such activities will reinforce initial training and strengthen the connections being made.

Step 7: Assess success and seek continuous improvement. Gathering data is vital to the progression and scalability of the program, so invite regular feedback from each participant through surveys and performance reviews. Use that information to measure results and improve your processes.

We suggest measuring outcomes semiannually or annually. You can also informally poll and interview participants throughout the year. And don’t underestimate the little things—small tweaks can lead to significant results!

When you reach the end of the seventh step, circle back to the first one and begin again. Always giving critical thought to improving your program will keep it vital, relevant, and results-driven for years to come.

Bert Thornton
Former President of Waffle House
Sherry Hartnett
Founding Director of the Executive Mentor Program, University of West Florida
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