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5 Steps to a Best in Class Mentoring Program

Posted by Barbara McMahan on 8/1/17 9:00 AM

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As the war for talent continues to heat up, the ability to attract, retain and develop talent is more important than ever.  Mentoring plays a critical role in enhancing employee satisfaction and creates competitive advantage in recruitment and retention. Particularly for Millennials, “on the job” professional development is a priority; they crave continuous learning and look to their employers for career development. If they don’t get it, they move on. At the same time, companies are faced with a wave of retirement among their most experienced talent, many of whom want or need to continue some level of professional employment.  As noted in my earlier post on the benefits of mentoring, bringing these two groups together in a formal mentoring program creates the proverbial “win-win” for both organizations and individuals. Over the course of my career as an international Organizational Development professional, I’ve found that companies reap the greatest rewards from mentoring when they have formal programs and structures in place that proactively pair accomplished professionals with up-and-comers in the organization. Designing the right program prior to implementation is critical to its success.  Here are five steps to creating a best-in-class mentoring program.

1. Establish Objectives

Mentoring can achieve a variety of objectives.  When designing a program, it’s imperative to clarify in advance what the organization would like to achieve and what will best fit the company’s culture.  For instance, a few years back I designed a mentoring program for a medical device company whose primary objective was to build the selling skills of its salesforce.  The program was implemented with the intent of bringing senior sales leaders together with newer associates in order to provide knowledge transfer.  The pairs addressed topics such as territory management, product knowledge and intrinsic selling techniques.  In a different scenario, I managed a mentoring program within the R&D division of a large medical device company.  The purpose of that program not only included knowledge transfer, but also how to increase its employees’ skillsets in navigating the organizational culture, communicating effectively in a technical organization, and building influence among peers and those outside the R&D function.   Other company mentoring goals may include diversity awareness, onboarding new employees or succession planning.  

2. Create Structure

The strategic objective is integral in determining the mentoring structure. Options such as group mentoring, peer mentoring, reverse mentoring, women in STEM, and alumni mentoring are all viable, depending on what will create the most value for the organization. Multiple approaches may be used within the same company, based on the needs of specific operating groups or functions. Within the mentoring format, how participants are paired is also a function of the goal. For instance, if a company is looking to enhance its employees’ technical skills, the Project Manager will want to pair participants with compatible skillsets.  It’s often helpful to obtain information from both the mentors and mentees on what they would like to achieve.  You can obtain this information by having everyone complete a skills inventory, indicating what they feel competent to teach and what they would like to learn. This can also be gathered via a brief survey or phone interview.

It’s also critical that a mentoring program match the culture of the organization.  If the company has a relaxed environment, allowing participants to select their own pairs and decide on the logistics of how they are going to work together may work well.  If the company has a more formal tone, it’s best to define a specific process. This includes linking the program to company strategy; establishing goals, outcomes, and metrics; communicating how pairs will be determined; defining time requirements; and setting participation expectations.

Prior to going “all in,” some organizations choose to designate a pilot group to test the structure and process before making a larger resource commitment.  Starting out with just a few pairs is an excellent way to test (and adjust) the structure and fit.

Regardless of the degree of formality or the structure, Senior Executive involvement is essential. Consider assigning a Senior Leader as the program’s Executive Sponsor. This increases program credibility, visibility, and participation as both the mentors and mentees see that their involvement is valued and worth the time investment.  In addition to an Executive Sponsor, assign a central Project Manager who is responsible for coordinating details, communicating progress, overcoming obstacles, and sharing success metrics with the Senior Executive Team and other key stakeholders.  Together, the Executive Sponsor and Project Manager champion the mentoring initiative and ensure that the overall strategy is reinforced every step along the way. 

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 3Define Success 

Establish metrics linked to the strategic objective prior to implementation. This gives the organization a clear definition of what success looks like.  Metrics could include the number of participants who complete the program, level of mentor and mentee satisfaction, and/or correlating participation to promotions, career advancement, or employee engagement scores, to name a few.   For instance, did the mentoring program increase retention of high potential Millennials, facilitate the advancement of women in the department, or increase the productivity of new hires? Program outcomes, participant outcomes, organizational outcomes, or a combination of all three can be assessed. For example: 95% of the mentoring pairs met once a month for a year; 100% of participants were highly satisfied with the program; 40% of the women participants were promoted within 12 months of completing the program. Longer term impact can be assessed by evaluating the career advancement of participants three years out, including promotions, lateral moves and/or salary increases.   

4. Train Both Mentors and Mentees

Training provides a common language and shared experience.  It should include role definition, expectation setting, logistics clarification (how often the pair meets, who initiates communication, what information will be kept confidential, etc.), and how the program will be evaluated. Many companies also choose to include training on how to be a good mentor and mentee.  Coaching, listening and interpersonal communication skills are usually included.  Most companies determine the metrics at a senior level; however, participant input certainly can be solicited and incorporated.

Typically, the training curriculum includes both separate sessions for the mentors and mentees, as well as joint sessions. The Project Manager can develop and facilitate the training, or you can bring in an experienced expert. I’ve worked with organizations that have included ice breakers and personality assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or DISC.   Both assessments rely on self-reported questionnaires that determine psychological preferences on decision making, dealing with change, and influencing others, among other things. These important activities increase the level of trust among participants and improve communication.  The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) can be particularly helpful when a pair encounters a situation that deals with conflict.   

Organizations with a more formal program may want to introduce contracts as part of the training process.  The contract simply spells out the commitments made by both parties (mentor and mentee) and demonstrates a formal agreement.  Signing your name to a document enhances commitment to responsibilities, action, and accountability. 

5. Celebrate Success 

Communicating achievements and recognizing those who participated reinforces the importance and investment the organization and individuals have made in the mentoring process.  One way of doing this is to have the Executive Sponsor host a recognition lunch, inviting all who participated. You may decide to give special awards to an exceptional mentor/mentee team. Providing plaques or other visual gifts is another way to reinforce and brand the program. Formally recognizing involvement can be very motivating and can attract additional participants for the future. By highlighting wins, you bring energy to the process, encourage future participation, and increase overall commitment within the organization.

According to the American Society for Training and Development, 71% of Fortune 500 companies have various kinds of corporate mentoring programs.  A recent Center for Creative Leadership survey revealed 77% of companies reported mentoring programs are effective at increasing employee retention. Designing and implementing the right mentoring program for your organization is critical for success. But it’s not easy when starting from ground zero. Partnering with an outside resource, like YourEncore, with expertise in setting up and managing mentoring programs, as well as access to highly experienced professionals that can serve as mentors within your organization, accelerates implementation and success. Need help getting started? Contact me. Together we can design a mentoring program to help your business achieve its goals.

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About Barbara McMahan: Barbara has over 20 years of leadership experience as an Organizational Development and Human Resources professional across a diverse group of companies and categories, including Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, LCA Vision, and Mike Albert Fleet Solutions. She has worked and consulted in corporate, non-profit, and academic settings in the United States, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Mexico. A YourEncore Expert since May 2017, Barb enjoys helping teams and individuals identify their unique strengths to create innovative opportunities for professional growth. She holds a BA in Psychology from the University of Michigan, a Master of Labor & Industrial Relations from Michigan State University, and NTL, SPHR, and SHRM-SCP professional certifications.

Topics: Experts, Consumer, Professional Development, Gig Economy, Flexible Resourcing, alumni engagement, mentoring