ATD Blog

Mentoring Circles: A New Spin on a Timeless Learning Technique

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Modern organizations are no longer the ones doling out development and training. Instead, today’s forward thinkers are allowing their employees to thrive by enabling them to self-organize into groups for their personal and professional progress. One way in which innovative organizations are handling this is through mentoring circles.

What Are Mentoring Circles?

Mentoring circles are a form of group mentoring that encourages participants from all levels of an organization to propose and own a topic of interest. This unique setup gives motivated employees an avenue to grow within the organization, and opens the door for all employees, no matter seniority or department, to find or create a circle that motivates them. Once a circle is created, other employees interested in similar growth and discussion can join and participate. These circles can occur virtually or in person depending on the organization’s needs.

Topics cover a wide range of interests and groups, including working moms, new hires in the marketing department, future project managers, or lunch break dog walkers.

Whom Do Mentoring Circles Serve?

The versatility of mentoring circles allows them to serve a swath of organizational learning initiatives and employee needs. Whether a company is focused on development objectives or the increased participation of a specific workforce population, mentoring circles provide an equal opportunity for involvement and employee-driven growth.

With the growth of Sheryl Sandberg’s lean-in philosophy and community meet-ups, mentoring circles have become an increasingly popular way to elevate women in the workplace. Mentoring circles can give women access to influential peers, future sponsors, and senior leadership they might never have interacted with before. This pulls women into networks sooner, engaging them earlier in their careers.


Likewise, mentoring circles are a great way to integrate other diverse populations—generational, gender, LGBTQ, cultural, socioeconomic, educational, neurological—more thoroughly into organizations. The nature of work is becoming increasingly global, with teams spanning multiple states, countries, and continents. Organizations that can navigate and incorporate cultural differences will source more talent and greater business opportunities. Starting a mentoring initiative, or several, can support minority staff, and build awareness, tolerance, and empathy in majority staff. 

An added benefit? Mentoring circles require minimal administrative time and effort to manage. This makes circles a seamless option for organizations to implement alongside other employee engagement programs and overall talent strategy. Mentoring circles is a great opportunity to monitor trends within a company, and ensure a proactive response in keeping employees engaged and happy.

What Are the Benefits of Mentoring Circles?

With mentoring circles, organizations can enhance their talent strategy by creating cross-departmental connections for employees throughout the company. The free, self-selecting form of mentorship allows entry-level employees to mix with management and senior-level executives, as well as their peers and other new hires. This allows employees to build more robust networks and connections they can turn to for support in new roles, stretch assignments, and future promotions.

With the wide variety of circles that can be created, employees can learn about various skills and tools that can help them grow in their current roles and advance within the company. From management skills and customer relationship management best practices to handling workplace conflict and office ethics, mentoring circles can impart knowledge to employees through others’ experiences and lessons learned.


The group style of mentoring circles elevates accountability for all involved. This type of interaction builds trust between members, which allows them to come together in support of each other’s goals while seeking to achieve their own. It also relies on participants to show up and interact. This group commitment keeps members engaged.

Finally, mentoring circles can go a long way in creating a space of trust and rapport for co-workers. This trust allows employees to confront difficulties in the office, and discuss candidly the challenges they face. It encourages participants to embrace diversity within the circle, and learn from one another’s experiences inside the workplace and out. These connections can create a more unified workforce and build a more productive path to collaboration, and eventually greater innovation within the company.

Best Practices for Structuring Mentoring Circles

Before you start your mentoring circles program, take a moment to note the critical elements of a successful setup:

  • Circles work best with between five and eight members participating. If groups grow much larger, participants speak up less and provide fewer individual contributions.
  • Designate someone to administer the program—it won’t run itself! Although circle leaders manage individual mentoring circles, you’ll still need an administrator to coach them along, encourage them to recruit participants, and celebrate their efforts.
  • Establish goals for the program and publicize these to participants. Without set goals, a circle can meander and get off topic. Be sure participants come away feeling like they’ve accomplished something.
  • Develop an efficient way for participants to propose circles, as well as a marketplace for participants to easily find a circle they’ll get excited about. Remember, you should make this process as streamlined as possible to keep motivation sky high.
  • Track program health—how many people sign up, how many groups form, how well they persist over time, and participant satisfaction. If you have mentoring software, measuring this information becomes much simpler.


Mentoring circles allow employees to learn from one another in a supportive format, and also drive knowledge transfer and engagement. It’s a new spin on a long-valued learning technique. And whether groups want to come together to provide mutual support, build professional networks, or develop specific skills, a mentoring circles program can be a creative new addition to any organization.

About the Author

Amanda Schnieders is a senior marketing manager at Chronus. A believer in the innovative capabilities of the modern workplace, she focuses on how human engagement can improve employee productivity and growth in an organization.

Her work in entrepreneurship with the Kauffman Foundation and the power of mentoring in her current role has provided her with insights into the key factors of the workplace today—mentoring, development, inclusion and support. In pursuance of these elements as, she helps organizations work smarter to retain their employees in an engaged and productive workplace.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.