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Why It's Important to Develop a Mentoring Contingency Plan

Tuesday, April 14, 2015
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In my previous post, I discussed how typical mentoring programs often lack support and guidance for mentors. Mentors can be the linchpin in an employee’s development. Neglecting them risks everything mentoring programs are trying to accomplish.

But what happens when, despite all your best efforts, you need to let your mentors go from the program?

Moment Number 2: Keep Your Coffee Warm and Your Clients Happy by Developing a Mentoring Contingency Plan

One morning, I had just sat down at my desk with a fresh cup of coffee when I saw several new emails come through with the subject line, “Urgent: New Mentor Needed.” This organization had implemented a new annual cycle of their formal high-potential mentor program a few weeks earlier. This was the second cycle in the current format and everything had been going well—until now.

As I skimmed through the lively email discussion, my coffee got cold on my desk. It turned out that one executive had strong objections to the mentor his direct report had been matched with. The mentor—let’s call him Connor—had left a really bad impression on the executive a few years back. Even though the match had been made with a lot of care—individual development plan goals and performance review strengths were matched along with DiSC-style profiles—the relationship was not going to be approved.

The executive was so upset over the situation that he was calling the entire process into question. He had such a poor view of this one mentor that it colored his view of the entire program, and he was starting to get vocal about it. Everything else in my day stopped so I could get on the phone with all the parties involved and work through the situation.

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Let me stop for a moment to acknowledge the elephant in the blog post. This is one of the reasons that many people are proponents of informal mentoring programs, as well as formal programs in which the mentees are solely responsible for finding their mentors. Had this particular mentor-mentee matching process been different, the executive may not have been surprised and the firestorm could have been avoided. There is no doubt that in many situations, other options are far superior to the formal administration of mentor matches I’ve described. However, in this case, for this organization, and for the goals targeted by this program, we chose to pursue a more formal process.

That morning, I spent a good amount of time reviewing other beneficial matches with the upset executive and some of the leadership team. Eventually, with my untouched coffee on my desk, I was able to remind everyone involved why we were doing things the way we were, and return my customers to a state of satisfaction. But, the fact remained: Connor was out of the program as a mentor.

I could argue that the feedback due to Connor was not mine to give, but in any case, I was the one who had to make the call. Here are the main points I prepared for my conversation:

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  • Thank you for volunteering to mentor others; this is a critical need for the organization.
  • Originally, we matched you with a mentee working on XYZ skills, which we know are strengths of yours.
  • Unfortunately, the mentee’s supervisor does not believe that you will be a good mentor for his employee, and has asked us to remove you from the current pool of mentors.
  • Because this program requires several critical parts to hit our target of developing our leaders, we not only need skilled mentors, we also need buy-in from supervisors to make this work.
  • While I do not have more details for you about the feedback, I’m happy to answer any other questions you might have about this decision.
  • If you are still interested in pursuing a mentor position within the program, my suggestion is that you work on the feedback directly with the executive, so we can look forward to bringing you into the program in the future.

My intention was to be respectful but honest about the situation. As someone external to the situation, I was obligated to follow through and remove Connor. At the same time, I wanted to make sure Connor saw the opportunity for his own growth and development by working on the feedback he was provided.
After this situation, a couple of really valuable lessons about mentoring programs were reinforced for me:

  • Before implementing a mentoring program, be sure to describe the ways in which a mentor or a mentee might be removed from the program and what that process would look like. This might include removal as a result of poor evaluations, supervisor requests, low performance on the job, withdrawal for personal reasons, and so on.
  • Don’t ever surprise your customers, whether internal or external. Remember to communicate early and often with all customers involved in a mentoring program to avoid emergencies like this one. Your customers most likely will include mentees and their supervisors, mentors and their supervisors, program administrators, and program champions or sponsors.

I don’t enjoy giving bad news, such as firing mentors. However, I know that Connor did take my advice, sought out the executive, and eventually became a great mentor in the program.
Learning from experience means helping us avoid similar risks in the future. There will continue to be days when my coffee sits cold and forgotten on my desk while I’m putting out fires, but as I learned from one of my own mentors, “Every day I win or I learn.” I’m so grateful that the situation with Connor came up and taught me such valuable lessons about working with my customers, and that it turned out well for him, too.

I hope that these posts on supporting your mentors and learning how to fire your mentors have been helpful. The third and final post in the series will discuss measuring progress within the mentoring relationship.

For a deeper dive, join me at one of my upcoming ATD Essentials of Developing a Mentoring Program workshops.

About the Author

Jenn Labin is the owner of TERP Associates, a team that seeks to grow talent and ignite potential. For 15 years, Jenn has had success working with a wide spectrum of organizations, including large private sector businesses, government and military operations, and higher education institutions.  Jenn is the author of Real World Training Design, a visual quick guide for creating exceptional results within tight budgets and timelines. Her second book on mentoring is expected in 2016. Jenn co-authored a chapter in the ASTD Handbook, 2nd edition, and has been published in the Pfeiffer Annual: Consulting journal three times. Jenn’s work can also be found in 101 Ways to Make Training Active, How to Write Terrific Training Materials, and the ASTD Trainer’s Toolkit app. Jenn has a BA from the University of Maryland Baltimore County in digital art, and an MA in instructional systems design.

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