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How to build a successful employee mentoring program


Sustained success is the goal of almost any human endeavor. In the college sports world, for example, some basketball programs create winning cultures that, when passed down from roster to roster over many years, championships are won repeatedly – even though hundreds of players flow through the program.

Your business may be able to build that same kind of chemistry and lasting productivity with the help of an effective employee mentoring program. (Net-cutting ceremony optional, of course.)

Why have employee mentoring programs?

Successful employee mentoring programs can create a variety of positive outcomes. But they should exist for one reason – to address a specific organizational need or set of needs.

These might include:

With clear insights into the need behind the mentoring effort, you’ll be better able to gauge success.

Benefits of employee mentoring

Small businesses can benefit greatly from mentoring because it’s relatively inexpensive compared to formal training and development programs.

For businesses of every size, mentoring may be more effective than formal training, which may be a cookie cutter, one-size-fits-all solution. Unlike formal training courses, mentoring often results in deeper, personalized conversations and feedback. In turn, these can foster collegiality, rapport and a common sense of purpose.

Additionally, mentoring increases an organization’s bench strength, making it easier to keep things moving when a team member is on vacation, retires or moves on to another job.

Getting management on board

Now that you’re ready to get a mentoring program up and running, where do you start? To develop your company’s future leaders, you’ll first need to get buy-in from today’s leaders.

When you present the idea to your decision makers, tie the program to your company’s goals. Employee mentoring programs should address a gap between your leaders’ vision for your company and the current reality. In other words – and to reiterate a point made earlier, you’ll be more persuasive if you connect the program to an unmet need or needs.

If you’re fortunate to have senior staff who value talent development, you might want to tap into that interest. Thus, other reasons for the company brass to back a mentoring program might include:

  • They want to engage employees in different ways with an eye to building culture.
  • They may have been mentored themselves and want to “pay it forward” to others.

Yet, whatever their motives for signing on, leadership’s involvement shouldn’t stop after they say, “Yes.” Ideally, your leadership team should be vocal in their support of the program – and they may even volunteer to be mentors. This will help establish mentoring as part of your company culture, making it a powerful professional and organizational development tool for years to come.

Building a mentorship program in the workplace

As with any other HR endeavor, there are both best practices to follow as well as pitfalls to avoid. Here are eight tips to help you develop an outstanding employee mentoring program.

1. Think beyond one-way mentoring.

Mentorships involving tenured employees are a great way to get new hires used to the company’s workflows and processes, but employee mentoring should go beyond just the tenured teaching the new.

Mentorship from recent hires who have brought valuable new information into your organization (i.e., reverse mentoring) can also re-energize and re-engage workers in the middle of their careers.

2. Define desired outcomes and milestones.

What does a successful mentoring relationship look like? How does this help the employee and your company? Defining your desired outcomes for an employee mentoring program from the beginning helps you address your needs best.

For example, at a software company, you might state that a mentoring program goal is for incoming and junior level software engineers to be able to acclimate to your environment, understand your processes and help achieve company goals.

With those goals in mind, you can set milestones for your mentors to use as benchmarks. You can also decide what tools and resources (e.g., mentor training, timelines) you’ll need to create to foster success.

3. Identify a program overseer.

Strong employee mentoring programs have one or two people who oversee the program at-large. This could be someone from your HR team or an employee who is passionate about mentoring.

These program administrators are responsible for:

  • Connecting mentors and mentees
  • Monitoring the relationships
  • Ensuring mentorship activities benefit the mentee and the company
  • Resolving any issues that arise in a consistent manner (e.g., what happens if a mentor leaves the company?)

4. Don’t play matchmaker.

Don’t choose mentor and mentee pairs only because their personalities are compatible. It’s not a blind date. A match should be based on the skills of the mentor and the needs of the mentee.

5. Develop specific mentor criteria.

The best employee mentors have distinct, important skillsets to share and characteristics that align with your organization’s values (e.g., perseverance, a servant leadership mindset).

They also have the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to successfully deliver the desired outcomes of your program.

Using this information to guide you, you can develop criteria for your mentors.

In general, some things to look for in an employee mentor are:

  • A desire to work with someone and share information
  • The ability to have two-way communication about processes
  • Willingness to accept mentees’ input as well as provide guidance and support
  • A desire to help the company as a whole and make it a stronger organization
  • One year of service in your company
    • This may be less important if you have an individual who is hired specifically for new skills or technology that they bring on board. There will likely remain some duration for the person to be properly onboarded, but they may not need a full year or so before beginning to mentor others.
  • The ability to meet any performance evaluation rating requirements

These factors are important because employee mentorships aren’t just about the tactical transfer of information. They’re also a strategic opportunity to pass on attitudes and values important to your company culture.

6. Take a practical approach.

Rather than just have mentees observe their mentor or ask questions, get them involved in the actual work when they’re ready and when appropriate. So doing helps the learning take hold while building confidence in the mentee and trust in the mentor and supervisor. Plus, in client-facing roles, this approach may help forge new relationships with customers and may help keep them at ease in the event of a handoff.

The process of a true mentor naturally shifts responsibility to the mentee:

  1. The mentor shows the mentee how to do something.
  2. The mentor and mentee do it together.
  3. The mentee shows the mentor how to do it.
  4. The mentee does it independently.

7. Don’t let it look like a fast track.

Studies show that people who participate in workplace mentorship programs (both mentees and mentors) are more likely to be promoted than their peers.

However, you don’t want your mentoring program to be perceived as a guaranteed path to a promotion, as it’s not a realistic outcome for every employee. This perception could also draw participants for the wrong reasons and distract from the program’s real goals.

Participation doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t guarantee a move up the ladder either.

8. Don’t use the program as a crutch.

Mentoring programs are not a replacement for performance management processes or day-to-day leadership. Likewise, the mentor should not become the mentee’s de facto supervisor. That would undermine the authority of their actual manager.

Rather, if performance issues arise with a mentor or mentee, your program should have a plan for modifying the mentor relationship when needed and communicating with the supervisor who should address the issue.

9. Set the mentorship length to fit your objectives.

If you’ve given mentees some new experiences and they’ve done well, there’s no problem in bringing the mentoring cycle to a close.

In fact, establishing a program timeline at the outset can help motivate participants to make the most of the opportunity. Plus, in larger companies, repeating mentoring cycles may help ensure that everyone who wants to participate can do so without overwhelming any of the mentors.

Mentoring can take place over the course of a year, a season, or even a quarter. It all depends, again, upon your company’s needs, demand and calendar.

Wrapping things up

When it comes to talent development and strengthening professional relationships, there’s always room for improvement. Mentor programs can go a long way to help foster growth. And, arguably, mentoring may be seen as an ongoing leadership competency in our rapidly changing world of work.

When the mentorship period is over, consider holding a special wrap-up meeting, luncheon or recognition ceremony to mark the occasion. This is another great opportunity for senior leadership to step in and sing the program’s praises, cheering the efforts of all those involved.

You can also showcase mentors and mentees in a company newsletter so that you not only celebrate participants, but also build buzz for the future.

Growing your business through employee relationships

Want to learn more about creating effective employee development programs that set your business up for success? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.