How to Start a Mentorship Program That Really Works

When you start talking about mentorship programs, you’ll usually get one of the following reactions: a collective groan about the additional work that such a program might entail, intimidation about where to begin or excitement from people who have experienced successful mentor relationships and the growth that comes from them.

Nearly every company can benefit from one, however. Mentorship programs not only improve employee job satisfaction and retention, they are also helpful for targeting those often left in the forgotten middle, such as underperforming programs, emerging leaders and midlevel performers.

Your top performers will have the opportunity to get some real-time guidance and your midlevel performers will often be inspired to take it to the next level. Though it may be the people who are slogging along day-by-day who benefit the most.

How to start a mentorship program

Quality mentorship is extremely beneficial when it happens naturally. Within a structured program, it can be an even more powerful tool to drive company engagement, leadership development and business initiatives. Here are three tips to start your mentorship program:

1. Find enough people.

To begin with, your company must have enough critical mass for mentoring to actually take place. You don’t want managers mentoring their direct reports because a managerial relationship involves dispensing specific work-related feedback. A mentor, on the other hand, can deliver a different type of counsel because they are coaching, not supervising.

Receiving coaching from people who aren’t your managers also exposes you to different points of view. It gives you an opportunity to ask questions and explore different parts of the company, which is especially important with topics such as company politics, history and policy.

If you are part of a small company, consider finding a sister company with similar values and lining up mentors and protégés. You might find that this ends up functioning almost like a mastermind group, where your companies are able to share lessons learned and apply history to problems and initiatives, even if you are in different industries.

2. Start with a pilot mentorship program.

An effective way to test the waters for a formal mentorship program is to start it as a pilot with a few mentors and protégés. When you start a program, you want to create structure so that it doesn’t feel like a time suck. Setting up regular sessions, general goals, desired outcomes and a template for discussions can be helpful and is more likely to yield a concrete result.

During the pilot program, look to match mentors and protégés based on common interests and skills. If the teams start with something in common, it will facilitate connection as the relationship develops. Have your pilot pairs meet once every two months with guidelines and meeting agendas.

During this time, you can assess what is working well and what could work better in the large-scale launch of the program. If it fizzles out, it could be because there wasn’t enough mutual benefit for the parties, or because there wasn’t enough interest or energy behind it to begin with.

3. Involve the boss.

If you start a mentorship program that does not involve the C-suite, it will fail. Management will fill the time with other issues that preclude the mentorship program from having a full effect.

Senior management should be heavily involved in setting guidelines, actions and goals for the program. The more buy-in, the more support. Ideally, executives will also participate as mentors, but because they typically have less available time, a good alternative is to have them host small group sessions. This way, the protégés can benefit from their wisdom and insight without the tinge of favoritism that could otherwise arise.

At the end of the day, any time employees feel valued and invested in, you will see an increase in performance and retention. What do you have to lose?

This article was published in October 2017 and has been updated. Photo by StratfordProductions/Shutterstock

Dr. Lisa M. Aldisert is a speaker, author and business adviser based in New York City. She is the president of Pharos Alliance. Her latest book is Leadership Reflections: 52 Leadership Practices in the Age of Worry.

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