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Build a Great Mentoring Program

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Coaching and mentoring, although often used as synonyms, differ greatly. One basic difference is the existence of certifications for coaches, testifying to their skills in helping individuals move ahead from whatever is blocking them from change and success in their personal or professional life. Mentors are considered experts with extensive experience in particular skills that provide guidance, advice, and instruction to someone looking to hone those skills. Businesses may establish internal mentoring programs but look outside the business, or leave it to the employee, to find coaches.

Mentoring helps the business as well as the mentee; a recent survey of nearly 8,000 U.S. workers revealed that mentoring led to lower turnover, more job satisfaction, including satisfaction with pay, and a path to career advancement which supports a strong talent pool. At the same time, a bad mentoring program causes distress to the participants and leaves them feeling abandoned rather than supported.

Characteristics of a Grade-A Mentoring Program

A grade-A mentoring program should be inclusive of everyone, in all salary ranges, all functions, and every demographic. The above survey also shows that the more diverse a mentoring program is the more value mentees are able to glean from it. In fact there is great benefit in two-way mentoring where people with similar skillsets but complimentary demographics (older workers/younger colleagues, races, or genders) participate together to help expand viewpoints as well as skills.

A formal mentoring program needs both clear goals—key performance indicators that let you know that the program is working—and a relaxed atmosphere so that those in the program are not tied to specific requirements or specific outcomes. Formal mentoring programs may include a deliberate selection of mentors and mentees or everyone may be volunteers. What makes sense for one business may not make sense for another.

Regardless of whether mentors and mentees are selected or volunteer, a formal mentoring program offers support. The mentor may need training in providing feedback and helping someone else make their own decisions and set their own goals. Mentees may need help in knowing how to prepare for a meeting with their mentor and defining the role of the mentor as a support for, not an endless source of, solutions and motivation. Both need time in their schedules, a comfortable meeting place, and access to technology or other tools for the relationships to succeed

TIP: A formal mentoring program is more likely to be diverse, benefit both mentor and mentee, and create a talent pipeline for the business.

CAUTION: Even formal mentoring programs may leave a mentor struggling if consistent support for the mentor isn’t provided. One person being a constant support and advocate for the mentors is essential for long-term participation. 

Characteristics of a Grade-A Mentor

Mentorship is generally a volunteer position that concentrates on helping an individual in their current position, relaying the skills and knowledge that the mentor has gained during their own career. While many people believe a mentorship begins and ends with a professional relationship in a given field, research has shown that mentorship gains value when a mentor and mentee discuss values such as integrity, optimism, and self-awareness. In addition, the techniques of coaching are often used by the most successful mentors, especially the emphasis on asking questions of and generating ideas from the mentee rather than imparting answers, solutions, and information.

Grade-A mentors:

  • Realize that the mentor/mentee match may not be perfect. As a mentor, you might suggest a trial period for determining if you and the mentee want to continue; you can even set an end date for the mentorship.
  • Provide a safe and calm environment for the meetings. Both you and your mentee need to feel safe from any exploitation due to differences in gender, race, ability, or level of power.
  • Focus the meeting on a single topic or problem and talk about it in depth. You can ask the mentee to select the topic in advance or suggest it yourself.
  • Act as a knowledge source and are eager to share. You want to see the mentee succeed, perhaps even further than you yourself.
  • Incorporate values and soft skills development into the relationship. You want the mentee to understand how an environment of trust operates, how to manage anger appropriately, and how to act in an ethical and trustworthy manner.
  • Demonstrate active listening skills and respect for the other person. These are some of the soft skills you want to model and impart to your mentee.
  • Avoid fixing problems or demanding that the mentee take certain steps. Instead, you should allow your mentee to suggest possible resolutions or courses of action and help the mentee evaluate the possibilities.
  • Periodically reflect upon lessons learned by both parties.

TIP: One-on-one mentoring succeeds when mentor and mentee are committed to building a relationship and when neither party tries to manage or “fix” the other.

Other Types of Mentoring

While one-on-one mentoring is most common, group or team mentoring is also possible. Group mentoring is usually shorter-term and revolves around a particular technique, skill, or area of knowledge that the entire group needs to master. The group itself may have been put together specifically for the mentoring opportunity.

Even more than individual mentoring, group mentoring requires a goal and a plan for what will happen next after the group disbands. Will the members go on to mentor others? Will they use new skills or knowledge in a specific program or project? Defined objectives are important.

One of the advantages of team mentoring is that it maximizes the use of limited resources. As the current talent pool ages out, and as employees continue to move around from company to company, the business receives great benefit if essential soft skills, techniques, and knowledge are relayed to a group rather than to one individual. Moreover, if several mentors work with a single group, the mentees receive multiple perspectives—as do the mentors—which can open up new avenues of innovation, break down siloes, and leverage relationships.

TIP: As one of many mentors for a group, you have the opportunity to make connections in and learn about area of the company you may not have interacted with previously.

Key Takeaways

Although mentoring can thrive without a formal mentoring program, the business benefits greatly from a mentoring program that supports both mentor and mentee. The best mentors realize they are advisors, not fixers; engage in active listening; and impart soft skills as well as hard skills.

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