They say “it takes two to tango,” but there’s much more to the iconic dance than just two people. Without the music, the lessons, and endless practice, the tango just isn’t the tango. In the same way, the success of a mentoring program takes more than just the commitment of the mentor and mentee. It also requires a solid foundation of guidance and support from the organization facilitating the mentoring opportunity.
Although each organization naturally develops its own unique mentoring philosophy and processes, APQC’s recent analysis of best-practice mentoring programs revealed five actions that organizations should take to provide structure for mentoring relationships.
#1. Compel Mentoring Pairs to Define Learning Objectives
In most best-practice mentoring programs, each partnership begins with mentors and mentees agreeing on a set of learning objectives that they will pursue together. Setting clear goals for activities and outcomes establishes the pair’s priorities from day one, guiding their agenda and providing a shared sense of purpose.
With a target to aim for, mentoring pairs can begin a frank discussion from a common starting point. Defining learning objectives up front also gives mentors a chance to verify that they have the knowledge and commitment to teach what mentees want or need to learn. If they don’t, it’s better to know before both parties become deeply invested in the pairing.
Some organizations, such as healthcare services company Cardinal Health, ask pairs to complete simple agreements to articulate and sign off on the goals they will pursue together. By contrast, GovLoop, which runs an industry-wide mentoring program for federal, state, and local government, incorporates objective setting into larger mentoring action plans that require pairs to list milestones and tasks for each goal.
2. Set Clear Timelines
Rather than encouraging open-ended relationships, most organizations establish timelines for pairs to meet their stated objectives. The timelines include not only progress milestones, but defined end points, which tend to keep pairs focused and create a sense of “deadline” urgency.
For career counseling mentorships, the focus tends to be on long-term career development and relationship building. These relationships tend to require a minimum timeframe of six months for partners to establish rapport and trust. When mentoring is intended to impart role-based skills, the appropriate timeline may be shorter or longer, depending on the complexity of the knowledge being transferred from mentor to mentee.
Cardinal Health, for example, initiates six-month mentorships quarterly at set intervals. To keep the relationships on track, the organization uses short monthly assessments and longer midcycle surveys, which encourage pairs to assess their own progress and adjust as needed. When their six months are up, pairs can choose to continue for another six months. But at the end of that period, the official relationship ends, and the mentee can choose to find a new mentor, become a mentor, or take a break.
#3. Have Mentors and Mentees Clarify Their Ground Rules
At most best-practice organizations, mentoring pairs are encouraged to set their own ground rules for interaction, including each partner’s responsibilities to the other and how they will work together toward their stated goals. Clear ground rules can help prevent misunderstandings, since both mentors and mentees know what is expected of them.
Giving participants control over the process helps ensure their buy-in and makes it easier for them to fit mentoring into their schedules. With this in mind, most organizations encourage pairs to clearly define their respective roles in sustaining the relationship, as well as the logistical details of when and where to meet. A single agreement document can house these details as well as learning objectives, which helps align actions with objectives.
At chemicals company Praxair, mentorships begin with mentors and mentees setting development goals and laying out logistics such as how often to meet, how they will contact each other, and the nature of the support the mentor will offer. At quarterly review meetings, the pairs track progress, verify professional growth, and set new challenges.
#4. Train Mentors and Mentees
Successful organizations help set the stage for mentorship by training mentors and mentees on their roles and expectations, effective communication strategies, and relationship-building techniques. For mentors, training tends to focus on ways to talk to and build trust with mentees. For mentees, it’s often about how to ask the right questions and learn from their mentors.
Although many organizations require mentors and mentees to attend in-person training, busy schedules can and do get in the way. An alternative is online or computer-based training, which is the approach used by most best-practice organizations in APQC’s study. At Cardinal Health, for example, both mentors and mentees complete separate video-based training that covers roles, responsibilities, and advice.
The type or format of training matters less than its effectiveness. As long as mentors and mentees emerge with a clear understanding of their responsibilities, then training is serving its purpose.
#5. Provide Tools and Resources
Most organizations give mentors and mentees process-related tools and templates to support productive interactions, walk participants through the steps of their interactions, track goals and progress, and jump-start conversations.
At Praxair, for instance, mentoring pairs use standard templates to guide and document their relationships. The templates cover many different aspects of mentorship, including meeting plans and records, career and life goals, personal development planning, personal inventory, and quarterly or final reviews.
Other organizations use dedicated software platforms to support their mentoring programs. GovLoop, for example, has a central online platform that facilitates nearly every step of the mentoring process, from pairing through action planning and tracking. Mentoring pairs set deadlines for specific learning goals and activities, checking them off as they are completed. If given access, managers can also view mentees’ goals, milestones, and progress through the system.
A Solid Foundation
By using these best practices to provide a solid foundation for your mentoring program, you can give employees the tools they need to build their own successful mentoring partnerships.
What implementation practices have worked well for your organization’s mentoring program? Let us know in the Comments below.