Group mentoring has gained momentum over the past few years and is now a mainstream option for mentoring in the private and public sectors. Team, peer, and facilitated group methods broaden choices for employee development.

The National Security Agency (NSA) started three innovative group mentoring programs to adapt to the diverse, fast-paced, and different ways employees need to work together and share corporate knowledge.

As the federal population ages—The Washington Post estimates that 60 percent of federal managers and supervisors will be eligible to retire in the next few years—it will leave an especially challenging opportunity for senior leaders to share their legacy. Newly hired Gen Y's and X'ers have worked in groups and learned from each other as a natural part of their growing-up process. New approaches to mentoring—such as group mentoring—are worth considering. Early success in a pilot group mentoring program in a single-skill community led to a formal program and spawned two other adoptions.

What Is Group Mentoring?

Group mentoring is a group of individuals who engage in a mentoring relationship to achieve specific learning goals. The benefits of group mentoring are numerous. Group mentoring takes a non-hierarchal approach and links people together who have similar learning needs. It assists in the challenges of insufficient amount of mentors—one person used to meet all needs—scarcity of resources, differing approaches to learning, and engaging the generations.

Examples of group mentoring include

  • Team mentoring, where a team with the same learning goals works simultaneously with one or two mentors.
  • Peer-group mentoring, a self-directed, self-managed group that meets together to learn specific skills.
  • Facilitated group mentoring, which has a separate facilitator who meets with a group and asks questions to guide the process and promote thought-provoking and meaningful dialogue. This is enhanced team mentoring, where a number of people with similar learning goals meet together with one or two mentors.

Group mentoring is particularly conducive to a government setting. The approach can become an alternative paradigm in an organization where mentoring is available for all employees. With a stake in developing all employees, and the perspective that everyone has a role in seeking mentors and being a mentor, group mentoring helps bridge the gap in a typical hierarchal structure.

The approach also provides clear structure and accountability, yet is flexible in format and delivery. It is generally easy to roll out. Though not dependent upon a tremendous amount of administrative support, it does need strong advocacy and leadership.

Group mentoring focuses on learning, not promotion or favoritism. For example, mentors and mentees benefit from learning how to:

  • write clear learning goals
  • design individual development plans
  • accommodate different learning styles
  • understand different generations at work
  • appreciate diversity
  • build connections
  • learn new technology
  • gain a specific skill
  • share lessons learned
  • tell stories
  • debrief learning experiences.

Mainstreaming Group Mentoring

Having first been exposed to the concept of group mentoring at an NSA-sponsored workshop on mentoring, a team of senior executives with guidance from an expert practitioner launched a pilot program in a single-skill community. They surveyed and interviewed participants before formalizing the program and then implemented two other group mentoring initiatives—one under the sponsorship of the agency-level Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity (EEOD) organization for the Hispanic/Latino Employee Resource Group and the other under a mission element. From these explorations over two years, diverse variations of group mentoring have taken root in a culture in which only the one-on-one paradigm previously had a foothold.

Each of these programs was shaped by the mentoring needs of participants and those of the organization. Success factors that fit the common wisdom about group mentoring emerged.

Sized for exchange. The number of mentoring participants, both mentors and mentees, typically ranged from 10 to 20 in our settings. This was large enough to gain a variety of viewpoints and experiences but small enough to enable all participants to engage. This number also accommodated small group activity as well as management of pre- and post-session pairings.

Frequent meetings within a window of time. Each of the group mentoring iterations had a calendar with a start and end date, with a window of activity of six to nine months. Participation was voluntary, but mentees were asked to commit to attend and actively participate. All meetings were held within the workday.

Objectives that matter. Survey data and interviews from the initial pilot revealed that mentees wanted and needed a voice to set the mentoring session objectives. Thus, mentors and mentees in each of the three implementations agreed upon a set of priority objectives. These objectives were generally tied to career development, such as technical leadership, knowledge sharing, workforce agility, and networking.

Ground rules. The concept of group mentoring was new for all participants, and there was an overall consensus that ground rules needed to be set. These were “authored' and agreed upon by the participants.

On task. A professional facilitator managed the session activity and facilitated the flow of discussion. This kept mentoring sessions on target to achieve objectives and accomplish a diverse set of tasks.

Leadership on board. Each of the three diverse initiatives had strong leadership support and realized this in a number of ways. The NSA/Central Security Service senior language authority made the call for participation to the language skill community members and selected participants. Similarly, the mission element made a clear endorsement of group mentoring and called for participation, personally encouraging mentors. The mission management team participated in a number of the sessions. The third initiative had both organizational support from EEOD as well as support from agency-appointed senior advocates to the Hispanic/Latino Employees Resource Group.

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Diversity, diversity, and more diversity. A key selling point of group mentoring is access to diverse views and capabilities with exchanges among multiple mentees and mentors. Diversity played out in many ways in each of the three implementations. There was always a common ground starting point for the mentees (such as membership in a skill community, organization, or affinity group), and the group mentoring paradigm allowed participants to leverage it but not be bound by it. For example, mentee members of the affinity group belonged to a wide array of organizations and skill communities and were at different stages of their professional careers. They were not necessarily of Hispanic or Latino ethnic background. Similarly, mentee members from the language skill community represented a wide range of languages with different areas of specialization.

Tangible outcomes–changed behaviors. All of the mentoring sessions were highly structured in planning and implementation. Once objectives were set, planning got underway for the two-hour sessions to include pre-session activities (setting the stage and thought process), and post-session activities (solidifying the learning and demonstrating concrete changed behavior). To illustrate, a session on technical leadership motivated two mentees to address quality control reporting. They identified an evaluation methodology and worked across the enterprise to gain adoption. After a session that a senior mentor led on networking, she herself adopted the networking technique to introduce advance technology into her own organization.

Implementation of group mentoring at NSA also revealed factors that clearly contributed to the success of group mentoring in the government that have not typically been identified in the current literature.

Expert practitioner as guide. Our group mentoring initiatives were infused with subject matter expertise on mentoring and leadership development from the outset with the guidance from an expert practitioner as a consultant. Because this new paradigm contrasted sharply with the prevailing mentoring tradition in the organization, participants were introduced to the concept of group mentoring in workshop to set the stage for a new practice.

The expert practitioner nurtured each group mentoring team in best practices and enhanced participant knowledge with mentoring community approaches and research. Active engagement of the expert practitioner translated into applying leadership and mentoring tools that would typically be unavailable to either mentors or mentees.

Balanced mentor to mentee ratio. Our implementation was “out of sync” with conventional wisdom with almost all cases cited—having a nearly equal mentor to mentee ratio. With a core of senior mentors remaining stable in each of the three models, we obtained such a high rate of senior mentor engagement by identifying and calling upon senior leaders to share knowledge and mentor when the group mentoring sessions needed it. This approach increased exchange with senior leaders in a small group setting and diversified knowledge shared. Our approach maximized senior sharing and minimized time commitment.

What some may consider disproportionate senior engagement meant that each leader had a much wider reach out. As many senior mentors were outside of the so-called chain of command, this heightened the mentees' access to knowledge and experience on a more enterprise-wide scale.

The cost of doing business. Early in each of the three implementations, we learned that effective group mentoring had a real administrative burden that was not initially anticipated. Planning the group mentoring program and efficiently carrying it out required multiple hands with an active set of orchestrators. Activities such as scheduling rooms, defining the session activities, and gathering or soliciting feedback took time and energy.

Making do with existing technology. Though innovative technology is the hallmark of new advances in group mentoring and collaboration, the email, web technology, and existing online enrollment software met the NSA's needs. Clearly, today's technology facilitated interaction, but face-to-face interpersonal interactions—group sessions, pre-session activities, focus groups, or post-session shadowing—lie at the heart of our successful group mentoring.

It's about me in an organization. In the private sector, business leaders acknowledge the role that group mentoring can play in improving the consistency of a product or service delivery, easing reorganization, or bringing new staff up to speed. The introduction of group mentoring into the government setting is also a way to further organizational goals. Our multiple initiatives brought agency employee development into the context of agency strategic goals.

Blurring the line. Descriptions of group mentoring tend to highlight the interaction among mentees as well as the role of senior mentors as exemplars and transmitters of experience and knowledge. A pleasant surprise was that senior leaders gained from the knowledge shared by both mentees and from fellow mentors.

Mentoring mind shift. While organizers understood the need for confidentiality, by creating a “comfort zone” and recognizing the possibility that some personalities may not mix, we found that the group mentoring model actually grows on its members and reaches advocacy over time. Acceptance of group mentoring requires the mentees and mentors to be willing to share with others, to build and maintain new relationships outside of the mentoring sessions, and to have an openness to listen and benefit from multiple voices. Survey data revealed that the shift from a one-on-one counseling mode to a less personalized group setting taxed participants and took time to adjust to, to recognize, and acknowledge the benefit.

The comfort of one-on-one mentoring. Survey data provided strong support for group mentoring in the government and acceptance of its value as an alternative mentoring paradigm. A few participants though still called for one-on-one mentoring as a complement to group mentoring or a component of it. Mentees appreciated when senior mentors reached out beyond the group setting and engaged in personalized mentoring.

Group mentoring clearly can facilitate the engagement of all generations of work, enhance group learning and knowledge sharing, and address doing “more with less.” Other government agencies can benefit from considering how everyone will leave his or her legacy, how people work and learn together, what support will be needed for mentoring, and the benefits of a group mentoring process.

Flexibility in the definition of mentoring and the tools and variety of resources that will enable mentoring to be a natural part of work will yield tremendous employee engagement and development opportunities. A well thought out, carefully implemented, and sustained group mentoring program can successfully affect the world of work.