Starting a mentoring program might be the closest you'll ever get to making a business decision that has exclusively positive impact. Mentoring can improve employee satisfaction and retention, enrich new-employee initiation, make your company more appealing to recruits, and train your leaders. And the best part is, it's free. Unlike similar learning incentives like training programs or offering to pay for courses, mentoring utilizes the resources that your company already has. Here's how to get started. 

How to Start a Mentoring Program: Creating a Structure

The first step anyone thinking about starting a mentoring program should take is to define what the objective of the program will be. If you are aiming for higher minority retention rates, your program will be structured differently than if you were trying to develop leaders, teach a specific skill, or welcome newcomers to your organization.

In order to develop a program that best fit Morgan Stanley's goal-;to retain women employees in sales-;Barbara Adolf, who has since founded a human services consultancy in New York, started by choosing a group of leaders from different departments in the company to brainstorm a curriculum, and list what makes employees successful at the company, for mentoring sessions. Since there were more women who wanted to be mentored than available mentors, the mentees were put into groups with two mentors as facilitators.

But when Michelle Ferguson, the senior vice president of international operations of McGraw-Hill Education, developed a program that originally had a similar goal for its mentoring program, she ended up with a completely different format. In her program, women could choose their own goals-;anything from work/life balance to specific industry acumen-;and the company matched mentors and mentees based on who could best help achieve the goals. The mentors and mentees met individually for between one and three hours every month for a year. "There's no magic bullet," says Dr. Lois Zachary, the president of a leadership development and mentoring consultancy called Leadership Development Services in Phoenix. "You have to grow it, there's not a template that you can take from company A to company B."


One factor that is vital to developing a program that fits with your company is to align the structure of your program with the culture of your company. If your company is extremely formal, it might be best to have a formal application process, minimum time requirements, and set durations for the mentoring relationship (typically mentoring relationships last between six months and two years, depending on the goal of the mentee). If your company is informal, it might be okay to match people up and then let them figure out the logistics. But it's important to put at least minimal guidelines in place. "If it's too informal, you don't have any control over it, and it could die very easily," Adolf says. No matter what degree of formality your program takes on, you need someone to champion the project and check-up on how well its guidelines are being followed.


How to Start a Mentoring Program: Pairing

Some companies, like Morgan Stanley, use group mentoring. Others use peer mentoring, bring in an expert for facilitated mentoring, have lower-level employees teach higher-level employees in reverse mentoring, or even use a speed-dating format for "flash mentoring." But the most common type of mentoring program is one-to-one pairs, and thus the most common conundrum is how to pair mentees and mentors.

"As a researcher, I can tell you that how you best match people is probably the issue where we know the least about," says Tammy Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida and co-author of Designing Workplace Mentoring Programs: An Evidence-Based Approach." You can almost think about this as some type of dating service. There are some companies that actually purchase from vendors that have created these algorithms that are used to match mentors and protégés almost like an eHarmony system for dating." She's also seen companies use random processes for matching, such as picking names out of a hat. But she says the programs in which the participants have some input are usually the most successful.

One way of allowing input might be to have mentors and mentees fill out an information sheet about what they hope to offer or obtain from a mentoring relationship. McGraw-Hill has a system for making mentoring matches that includes a questionnaire, phone interview, and committee recommendation for each mentor and mentee. Another way may be to offer the mentor or mentee several options for a partner and allow them to choose one. Dr. Liz Selzer, a consultant with a California-based consultancy called The Mentoring Group, oversees leadership development for more than 30,000 leaders in the non-profit sector. She suggests matching people based on who they'll get along with best. "If people get along, they'll stay in the pair longer," she says.

But just in case a pair doesn't click, one of the most important things to remember is to set up a way for people to get out of the relationship and find another match without hurt feelings. One way to do this might be to set up a "check-up" or evaluation soon after the relationship begins. If there is a serious problem, find the mentee a new mentor.

Dig Deeper: How to Find a Business Mentor

How to Start a Mentoring Program: Training

You've established what goals a mentoring program can achieve for your company, set up a structure that fits your company culture, and now you are sending your matched pairs off to work. If you want positive results, it's a good idea to help them learn what "mentoring" means first.

There are a lot of formats you can use to do this. You can have a classroom-style discussion, you can hire someone like Zachary to host a "mentoring bootcamp," you can speak to mentors and mentees separately and then bring them together to discuss, or you can go to lunch. But no matter how you do it, here are the points you want to hit during your training time:

  • Explain why mentoring isn't a waste of time.

When Selzer was assigned her first mentor, she thought it would be a waste of time. Fortunately, she needed to participate in order to obtain her graduate degree, and she soon learned to see the relationship as invaluable. "I started noticing, wow, before I had a mentor, I talked about not being a procrastinator or I talked about changing certain things, but I never really did it," she says. "The accountability was key."

Even people like Liz, who ended up devoting her career to mentoring, can find it hard to see the initial value in adding another appointment to their schedules for mentoring sessions. "I think one of the main first steps is just normalizing your fear or your frustration or anticipation of [awkwardness]," she says. Although she was forced to start her first mentoring relationship, she doesn't suggest making your program mandatory. Instead, explain to people why they should choose to participate."You have to help them see the vision of why it matters."

Have leaders in your company make it clear that they think the program is important, and make sure that they participate in the program themselves as well as encourage other people to participate. Find people in your company who are willing to share the mentoring experiences that have made a positive impact on their careers.

  • Manage expectations.

"At a minimum, you really need to manage expectations with these programs," Allen says. "Because the word 'mentoring' has a lot of connotations associated with it. People might think, 'this is the person who is going to get me promoted, get me this, get me that,' so it's really important to identify to participants what the objectives are and what to expect, as well as not to expect, from it."

  • Suggest a format.

Mentoring pairs might choose to structure their time differently depending on their goals and preferences. But it's helpful to at least make a suggestion for how the mentoring pairs can get the most out of their relationship.
Zachary suggests mentoring relationships follow this cycle: preparation, establishing agreements, enabling, and closure. In the preparation phase, the mentor and mentee have a conversation about their expectations, confidentiality, and the boundaries of the relationship. In the establishing agreements phase, the mentor helps the mentee work out a plan, with clear tasks, for achieving his or her goal. The enabling phase is when the work happens. The mentor supports the mentee in following his or her plan as well as provides feedback and accountability. "They provide a mirror so that the person can see where they are and what the possibilities are," Zachary says.

Closure is a planned ending to the relationship. It's more than lunch. "You use it as an opportunity to reflect on your learning, what is it you've learned about yourself as a mentor or a mentee, what have you learned about yourself through this process, and how do you take what you've learned and use it to raise the bar and take it to the next level," Zachary says. You can also use it as an opportunity to celebrate success.

Some specific tasks you can suggest mentoring pairs put in a plan to achieve a goal are journaling, role-playing, or having mentors watch mentees at whatever skill they are trying to improve, such as leading a meeting, and giving their feedback.

Dig Deeper: The Truth About Mentoring

How to Start a Mentoring Program: Keys to Success

  • Communicate.

Make sure everyone in your organization knows that mentoring is going on. Preferably, the leaders of the organization should play a large role in this. "You need to make sure that senior executives within the organization are on-board and are part of the communications that go out, that they are endorsing the program, and hopefully are participating in the program as well: they're serving as mentors, making sure everybody knows, hey this is something that's important to the company," Allen says.

  • Embed mentoring in your culture.

If your program ends with a day of training and doesn't have clear support from important people in your company, the reaction you might get, according to Zachary is, "well here comes another HR initiative." Start your program gradually. "It's not just a spray and pray kind of thing where you go in and you teach mentoring once," she says.

  • Evaluate.

When you find a goal, find a way to measure whether or not your program is making progress toward it. Ask mentors and mentees how their experiences went. Look at productivity and measurable improvement in the areas that your program was targeting.

Dig Deeper: Mentees on Mentors


A guide to preparing for a mentoring relationship:

The Mentoring Group's guide to effective mentoring:

Want to look beyond your own company for a mentoring experience? SCORE, a resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration, will help you get set up with a mentor for free:

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