Before Starting a Mentoring Program, Answer Important Questions

🕑 5 minutes read | Sep 08 2023 | By Richard Head, TTA Learning Consultant

Mentoring is a form of coaching but, rather than it being performance-related, it’s about long-term development opportunities. Career goals, career moves, navigating internal politics, forging and sustaining working relationships within and across organizational boundaries, allowing the mentee to create their unique professional path, and furthering the learning and growth of the individual and the organization are all areas to explore. Mentoring also allows the mentor the opportunity to “give back” by sharing their hard-won knowledge, expertise, insights, wisdom, and network connections.

However, mentoring programs are not a “one-size-fits-all” affair. They can serve many purposes.  Mentors, mentees, and senior leaders will want those purposes defined and the programs tailored to those purposes.

Seven Essential Questions to Ask When Developing a Mentoring Program

  • Why does your organization need a mentoring program?
  • What’s the purpose of your mentoring program—what problem are you trying to solve or what opportunities are you trying to maximize? Common purposes for mentoring programs include:
    • New Employee Orientation. Sometimes, what’s being contemplated might be an “onboarding buddy” program of limited scope and short duration.
    • Employee Growth and Engagement. The program might be as simple as shortening the learning curve for a particular job or preventing missteps by sharing lessons learned. Other times, it’s more involved and consists of education, training, and subject matter expert support.
    • Leadership Development, “Key Employee” Development, or Succession Planning. These efforts might be worth a look to see if mentoring can play a role.
    • Decreasing Turnover. There can be many reasons for unacceptable turnover, so do extensive research before deciding that mentoring is part of a solution.
    • Change Management Support. Change initiatives require support for those most affected by the change.
    • Lateral Moves/Project Management Support. Like change management, new projects can benefit from the experience of seasoned professionals.
    • Refining Organizational Culture. The program’s purpose is to not only pass on organizational knowledge but to create a more productive and positive workplace.

Regardless of the purpose, defining the need, assessing your mentor talent pool, and identifying mentees/proteges ahead of program launch will help you create a program that’s a good fit for all concerned—including the company.

  • Once you’ve identified your purpose, what is your “compelling story” about why mentoring is beneficial? That story should be part of your internal promotional campaign to establish goals, objectives, and curiosity about the program, and to generate the kind of enthusiasm that will sustain the program.
  • What time commitment will be required for both mentors and mentees? Will mentees get the time or attention they want, and will the mentor know the time and effort they’re committing to? Defining the expected duration of the mentor/mentee match should also be defined.
  • What kind of “training” program will you provide for both mentors and mentees? Training programs don’t have to be long and involved, but defining basic expectations for both parties in a common setting can make sure everyone knows the expectations.
  • Are there limits for the program? Who will be eligible for the program? Is there a cap on the number of people who can participate?
  • What’s the process for changing the mentor/mentee match if the match is poor or there are other issues?

Answers to these questions help guide you to the basic purpose of all mentoring programs: to create an environment of learning and innovation that grows people’s capacity and results in an improved organization.

Definitions of Mentoring

The focus of mentoring is on developing the mentee/protégé’s capacity, rather than the mentor just handing down advice or providing solutions. The effort should develop the protégé’s ability to create their own path and not just continue what’s been done before or replicate the mentor’s leadership style.

A simple working understanding of mentoring is that it helps increase an employee’s:

  • Organizational awareness—awareness of potential issues, sensitivity to how decisions are made and work gets done, skill in maneuvering difficult situations
  • Organizational agility—how things function, how to get things done through formal and informal channels, how to build and maintain relationships and alliances
  • Awareness of important career goals, career moves, and what the mentor can assist the mentee with
  • Decision-making ability, future focus, and engagement

Key Mentor Behaviors

Mentors help others, regardless of reporting relationship, to acquire the awareness, skill, confidence, and resources necessary to fulfill their potential and contribute to the success of the business.

Mentors can provide the mentee/protégé with:

  • A role model; a trusted advisor the mentee can turn to
  • A sense of belonging to something larger, something beyond their current abilities
  • The ability to have a voice and be heard
  • Identifying opportunities for growth and development
  • Someone to talk to—an outlet. Mentors can:
  • Ask insightful questions and listen nonjudgmentally
  • Share experiences
  • Provide guidance
  • Develop challenges
  • Ask key questions
  • Be a “sounding board”
  • Make referrals
  • Open doors/make introductions
  • Be a brainstorming partner
  • Be a critical friend (critical in the sense of “important” and one who can informally hold feet to the fire)

Mentee/Protégé Benefits

Mentee benefits include:

  • Developing specific skills and knowledge that are relevant to personal and professional goals, such as communication, management, team development, and/or leadership skills.
  • Receiving career advice and guidance from experienced & knowledgeable peers.
  • Sharing current goals, challenges, and issues in a safe, positive, supporting environment.
  • Learning what it takes to advance and gain insight from the mentor’s expertise.
  • Establishing strong, long-term professional connections that are beneficial to the mentee and the organization.
  • Receiving ongoing support and encouragement for professional development.
  • Developing a sharper focus on what is needed to grow professionally.
  • Realizing increased motivation, self-confidence, and capacity.

Every person has several basic social needs. Unless those needs are met, a mentee won’t be able or willing to be receptive to coaching or to learn and change. As Brene’ Brown said,

“If we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmored, whole hearts—so that we can innovate, solve problems, and serve people—we have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

– Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts.

People have basic needs to be safe, be seen, be heard, and be respected. Answer a few questions before developing a mentoring program and I would add that mentoring helps people feel like they belong.

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