How to Create a Mentorship Program (And Why You Should)

Mentorship programs are a win-win for everyone involved. But it can be a lot of work. Learn how to design a mentorship program, and what questions you should ask yourself before you begin.

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Mentoring new employees — whether they have been recently promoted or need an upgrade to their skill sets — has been happening in businesses for as long as there has been a need to learn. One employee takes another under their wing for training and development, and everyone grows throughout the process.

For the employee, having a mentor provides a dedicated forum to learn the ropes, receive coaching and grow their skills. A good mentoring relationship can help workers develop professionally and map out their individual path to success — for their current role and beyond.

For the mentor, it’s an opportunity to share knowledge, develop communication and leadership skills and grow a professional network — mentors may even learn a thing or two along the way.

For the organization, mentoring relationships create a broader knowledge base and colleagues across roles, departments, and generations, ultimately broadening and strengthening relationships. Mentorships emphasize a culture of learning and professional development and can help cut down on the need to bring in (and pay for!) outside trainers. Every business should consider creating formal mentorship programs as part of their staff development program.

How mentorship programs work

You may have informal mentorships already in place within your organization as employees naturally look to another for help and guidance. Formal mentor programs capitalize and build on that culture of cooperation and add more to the mix. When a mentor/mentee relationship is created, the employee has a specific “go-to” person to ask for help.

Furthermore, a mentee can rely on a specific person for job coaching, training, and career advice. Typically a mentor is above their charge’s pay grade — they know what steps need to be taken to advance within the organization and can provide leadership and direction on how to get there from here.

How do you get a mentorship program up and running?

Mentorship programs can be highly structured or largely informal, and the people involved should have the latitude to do whatever works best. If you’re creating a mentorship program you’ll want to consider a few key questions that are important for success.

1) Who is responsible for developing a mentorship program?

While supervisors and managers may ask for mentorship programs to be created and will likely benefit from them, leadership and/or HR team members should be the ones to develop, administer, and roll them out.

A central person should oversee all the mentors and mentees and be available to answer questions, provide help and guidance, and evaluate the program periodically to make sure it’s working for everyone. This person can help determine if a mentor should suggest external training and learning opportunities and find ways to maximize the support and programming the organization has to offer.

2) What workers benefit from a mentor program?

Is there a specific employee or group that could learn and develop more quickly and successfully with the guidance and support a mentor could provide? You will want to identify either individuals or groups of workers you’re interested in targeting for the program, but be ready to be flexible. You may be surprised at the number of volunteers you receive to be mentors and mentees.

3) Who should be a mentor?

You’ll want mentors in your program to be strong brand ambassadors since no one wants a mentor who’s a Debbie Downer. A good mentor will have a strong knowledge base as well as good communication and leadership skills.

Mentors are typically volunteers – and that’s a good thing. Someone interested in helping others develop their skills and career is already invested in the success of the program. But make sure they have the time and the bandwidth to help — overwhelming a staff member, even one with the best intentions, doesn’t benefit anyone.

4) Who should be a mentee?

While you may be targeting a specific group of employees, it’s a good idea to ask employees to volunteer for the program. You may be surprised by who is interested. If there is a specific individual a manager has identified who would benefit from a mentorship, talk to that employee about what the program could offer and how it can help them grow and develop. Mentorships should never be forced. To get the most out of the program, both parties need to be willing participants.

5) What types of training, if any, would be involved?

If there is a specific upskilling needed for the mentee, it should be identified in advance. Once the goals are identified, the next step is to provide the time and tools necessary to achieve them.

For the mentor, training is beneficial as well. For some staff members, leadership and coaching skills are inherent. If you have these types of workers on staff, you’re ahead of the game.

But you’ll still want to train your mentors on the basics:

  • How available they should be
  • What information is confidential
  • When/if they should seek help from the employee’s supervisor or HR
  • How often they’ll meet
  • How to evaluate the process and the program

Set aside time for mentor programs to work

Adding another “to-do” to an already overwhelmed mentor or mentee is a recipe for failure. If you hope to create a successful program, you’ll need to set aside time for it to work. Pulling staff members off of their regular duties to take time to train and develop will be needed.

Work with them and their managers to assure they can take the time they need to devote to the relationship without jeopardizing work or creating undue stress. Remind supervisors that the objective is long-term gain if they can manage some short-term pain. The goal is for everyone to win — not for mentor program participants to worry about going back to the stress of a mountain of pressing work or managers feeling they’re being short-staffed for no good reason.

How often should the mentor/mentee meet?

Typically mentorships start out with more frequent, lengthy meetings and then pare back somewhat once the relationship is established. Once initial, time-intensive training (if any) is complete, the relationship then moves to support/coaching mode.

The cadence will vary, based on training needs, and other factors, but a general rule would be at least once a week at the initial stages and no less than monthly later on in the process. The relationship can go on for years, depending on the goals of the process. Everyone should be ready to make a long-term investment.

What qualifies as success?

As with every business initiative you’ll want to quantify what determines success before you roll out the process. What do you hope the program will achieve? There may be objective and subjective goals: specific upskilling and training that helps with performance or reduces errors or omissions. These are easily measurable: you may even want to set timelines for growth and development.

Career coaching may be another measure of success. Quantifiably, you may anticipate that 1 year into the relationship, the mentee should be professionally ready to advance to the next level. Or career coaching could be more long-term goal setting and planning.

Other mentorship goals may be more subjective, like building employee confidence, leadership, and communication skills. These may be harder to measure, but are no less important.

Evaluating mentor programs

Be prepared to evaluate the program throughout its cycle. If you’re new at creating mentorship programs, be ready to adjust, as well. As with all new initiatives, there will be tweaks along the way. You’ll want to ask mentors whether their charges are growing and developing. You’ll want to ask mentees if their mentor is helpful, supportive and available. You’ll want to ask both whether there are enough resources and time available to them to make the relationship worthwhile and beneficial.

Feedback tools are critical to evaluate whether the participants and their supervisors are seeing value to the program. A schedule of surveys, check-ins or other feedback tools assure the program is working and on track. Again, be prepared to adjust — negative feedback doesn’t have to mean shutting the process down. It can be an opportunity to recalibrate and get the program back on track.

At the end of the cycle, the mentor and mentee should have a relationship that lasts beyond the program parameters. This is yet another measure of success.

Mentorships benefit everyone in the workplace if they’re planned for carefully and administered frequently. Every business, large or small, that wants to grow and develop their staff should consider creating mentorship program opportunities.

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