by Dr. Linda Phillips-Jones

We receive a lot of questions about starting (or improving existing) formalized mentoring programs. Examples: “I want to start a mentoring program for new employees. Where do I start?” “We’ve had a mentoring program for a while, but it isn’t working very well. Any suggestions?

Following are some key considerations for new programs. Let’s assume you’ve concluded that formalized mentoring makes sense for your organization. For example,

  • You have support from top officials and the target audience; you and your task force have time and resources to spend;
  • The organizational climate is healthy (business is good, you’re hiring or at least not laying off, and people have expressed interest in developing and learning);
  • Some informal mentoring is already happening, and people speak well of it;
  • You have some specific goals in mind for the mentoring effort;
  • Mentors and mentees have time to meet and work on development activities together (even if most of their exchanges will be by telephone).

If you aren’t certain about what to do, order The Coordinator’s Guide for many more details to consider.

As you plan a new initiative, here are some musts:

  • Start small. You want to be successful in all respects, so focus a pilot effort on a group (and part of the organization) that is likely to do well. Two good targets are new hires and budding leaders;
  • Consider postponing a formal program (with matched pairs or groups) in favor of what The Mentoring Group calls “Enhanced Informal Mentoring.” Conduct orientations on what effective mentoring looks like, make mentoring self-study materials available, provide some informal coaching for people seeking mentors and to be mentored, circulate anonymous examples of effective mentoring activities, and watch the progress of this less formal effort for a time;
  • Plan ahead. Take at least six months to plan your initiative and get “buy in;”
  • Link goals to the mission and values of your organization. As organizational and mentoring expert Dr. Kathy Kram has emphasized, mentoring efforts that aren’t linked to the goals of the organization will not be taken seriously and will fail;
  • Don’t do everything yourself. Create a dynamic task force that’s excited about mentoring. Be sure everyone has a key role and set of tasks;
  • Don’t re-invent the wheel. Good materials for designing programs and for training mentors and mentees exist. Check out listings on the Web. Consider bringing in one or more consultants to help you think through your strategy, train everyone, and evaluate the impact of the mentoring effort;
  • If you opt for a program with mentor-mentee pairs (or mentoring circles), plan a great deal of structure. Have a formal application process, clear roles for participants, competencies on which mentees will focus, forms to turn in, formalized training, materials, scheduled ongoing activities, etc. You can always loosen up, but it’s harder to tighten up if a formal program begins with a too-casual approach;
  • Evaluate everything you do. Don’t wait until the year is over and try to pull together some results to decide if you’ll do it again. Go beyond “feel good” data that say the training was enjoyable. Try to get some baseline data before you begin on mentees’ competencies, knowledge, attendance, satisfaction with the organization, etc. Then measure changes.

Mentoring initiatives (and formal programs) take much time and effort. They look deceptively simple, yet they’re not. Mentoring isn’t rocket science, and yet it’s far more than common sense. It’s better not to organize formalized mentoring unless we can do it right. You and I will kill an incredible concept if we contribute to giving mentoring a bad name.