by Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones

Mentoring groups (also called rings and circles) are becoming very popular. This month and next, you’ll learn some of the most important aspects to consider in such groups.

Let’s start with some basic information including what group mentoring actually is as well as some pros and cons of this approach.

What Exactly is Group Mentoring?

A mentoring group (ring, circle) is a collection of mentoring relationships that meets together on a regular basis for an agreed upon length of time. The group’s primary purpose is to help mentees accomplish two tasks:

  1. Set important development goals and
  2. Build competence and character to reach those goals

The multiple mentoring relationships in the circle include those between the mentor-facilitator (or facilitators) and the mentees as well as the peer mentoring relationships among the mentees themselves. The groups typically consist of eight to twelve mentees and one, two, or three mentor-facilitators. (As an example, Microsoft Corporation selects three mentors per ring, ensuring two mentors will be available in case one of the three is called to an urgent work task.)

Many people point to small groups of one type or another (e.g., work teams and study groups) and assume that these are mentoring groups. Generally, they’re not. What defines an authentic mentoring group is that the group’s main purpose is to help individuals be accountable to one another on the two tasks mentioned above.

Advantages of Mentoring Groups (over 1-on-1 mentoring)

1. An organization can maximize its pool of qualified mentors, because the mentor-mentee ratio is larger.

2. By working together in a group, mentees often bond and build a network, which is valuable for a cohort of mentees joining the organization together or moving at a similar pace into greater responsibility.

3. Mentees receive multiple sources of feedback, not just that of one mentor. Hearing the same message from many sources can have increased impact.

4. Groups help normalize a mentoring culture throughout the organization.

Disadvantages of Mentoring Groups (over 1-on-1 mentoring)

1. Confidentiality can be an issue. Even though the group agrees to keep all exchanges within the group, information can slip out.

2. Not everyone enjoys group learning and sharing. In fact, some people dislike it a lot.

3. Of necessity, mentees don’t have as much 1-on-1 contact with the mentor(s) as they often would like.

4. Members may feel pressured by the group when they have difficulty setting goals or making progress.

Many organizations offer groups and 1-on-1 mentoring pairs. Mentees find that they can benefit from joining a group before, after, or at the same time as they work with individual mentors.

Group Purpose

As noted earlier, mentoring groups exist in order to help mentees identify development goals and build competence and character to reach those goals. In addition, especially in the workplace, the overarching purpose of most groups is career development often in the context of understanding and working with diversity. Some circles form in order to give members exposure to cross-functional and cross-geographical issues. Groups outside the workplace focus on many other purposes from members’ spiritual development to the attainment of increased social and emotional intelligence.

Group Makeup

Circles are designed for specific audiences such as new supervisors or managers, high potential leaders, future firm partners, or affinity groups. Groups can be the same gender or mixed. Mentor-facilitators are chosen based on the purpose of the group and the mentors’ expertise, interest, and availability. Most organizations regulate mentee membership through a screening process and assignments to specific groups. Typically, people are invited to apply on their own, and managers are also solicited for nominations.

Logistics

Planners must decide how long, how often, and where groups will meet along with how many groups to hold at any one time. The latter depends on how many mentees want to participate, available and qualified mentors, meeting rooms, and how much time coordinators have for supervising all the activities.

Most circles exist for six to twelve months, sometimes extending for another few months. Some mentoring groups are ongoing, although our philosophy is that authentic mentoring groups should have planned endings to prevent them from losing momentum, to expedite progress toward goals, and to free mentors and mentees for other mentoring relationships.

Most mentoring groups meet monthly on the same chosen day for one and one-half to four hours. Workplace groups usually meet on site in a conference room. In other organizations, groups may opt for restaurants or members’ homes. Members sit in a freestanding circle or gather around a large table.

Next month you’ll learn about Ground Rules, Content of Meetings, some Facilitation Skills, and Potential Mentoring Group Challenges.