6 Steps to Building a Mentorship Program That Actually Works

Nov 5, 2013 Posted by

Leadership development doesn’t just happen in a classroom. As the popular 70-20-10 model for leadership development suggests, new leaders emerge largely from the challenging assignments they complete, secondarily from the relationships they develop and lastly, from formal education.

Too few companies get the second piece of that equation right — the 20 percent spent on development relationships, mostly in the form of mentorships. Why? Because they implement mentorship programs without really thinking through their purpose, objectives and return on investment.

Imagine, then, a mentorship program that’s actually of substance, develops strong leaders and is embraced by everyone involved.

What Went Wrong: Off-the-shelf Programs

Before I tell you how to turn this notion into reality, a little bit of history: mentoring has happened informally throughout history. But what had long been a natural process got complicated in the mid-1990s when diversity and inclusion became business imperatives and everyone realized that informal mentoring seemed to happen only in homogenous groups.

In response, formal mentorship programs were born, both to increase career opportunities to minorities and women and to actively develop new leaders. Mentoring as part of leadership development strategies became a “best practice.” But as happens with many best practices, people would read a book or listen to a speech and think they had the knowledge to develop a mentoring program. Off-the-shelf mentorship programs became the norm, robbing them of any meaning.

That’s my problem with mentoring today.

How to Get Mentoring Right: 6 Steps

Well-conceived and designed mentoring programs can have remarkable results; but like any business practice, you have to understand what you want to accomplish, and you have to measure results. If you don’t do this, you have a lot of people matched, having awkward meetings that never really make a difference to either participant.

There are several elements to consider to design an effective mentoring program:

  1. Select the right mentors. Make sure the mentors you select are the ones you want teaching emerging leaders. Mentors can guide new leaders around political obstacles or teach them to manage a large project. But is the political guidance being given what you want to happen? Are the project management lessons based on sound methodology? The selection of mentors should be a careful process that identifies top performers AND their best skills.
  2. Establish clear objectives. Make sure your mentors know what is expected and are willing to commit. Spending time teaching others is energizing for some, and debilitating for others. They need to know the expectations for the program, the responsibilities they will have, and the consequences of not fulfilling the commitment. In order to gain commitment of senior leadership, they need to know exactly what the commitment entails. They need to know how often the pair should meet, what should they do at the meeting, how can they best set up goals for the relationship that can be accomplished in a finite time.
  3. Create a predictable structure. There are few things more discouraging to a new leader than to set aside time and prepare, only to have meetings rescheduled. And that probably is not the leadership behavior that you want them to learn. Have a defined length of time for the relationship.
  4. Check in on mentors and protégés regularly. Emerging leaders may be reluctant to push their mentors to meet, and a facilitator can be helpful by checking up and ensuring that the program is progressing appropriately.
  5. Measure results. Ask mentors and protégés to be prepared to describe to their fellow pairs what they learned, and what the program meant to them. Often, we stop doing something without taking the time to reflect on the experience. For those program administrators, this also becomes your return on investment.
  6. Celebrate the end of the program. Recognize what has been achieved. If a mentor and protégé wants to continue meeting after the formal program is over, that is their decision.

Mentoring can be an incredible experience for both participants, but it’s one that does not always happen by itself. If a more formal approach is preferred, a solid foundation, infrastructure, training and evaluation will help you understand the return on your investment of leadership time.


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