Implementing a formal program when it isn’t needed could lead you in the wrong direction.
By all indications, we had the makings of a successful program in place. But it wasn’t successful—not even close.
I was eight years into my tenure at Valvoline Instant Oil Change, but I was just as excited to be a part of the company as I was on my first day. I was overseeing the talent development function, a role where I could help team members who were early in their career build the foundational skills that would serve them throughout their careers.
I was still excited about the company’s commitment to personal development. Core values like “It all starts with our people” and “We strive for greatness” were more than bullet points in a presentation—they were descriptions of a living culture. It would have been hard to find an organization with values more closely aligned with my personal commitment to growth and development.
I was succeeding personally and professionally. I had developed a reputation for creating formal, coherent programs in areas where informal knowledge transfer was not working or scalable. My team had grown in both numbers and capability and was beginning to be recognized across the training and development industry.
Key metrics were likewise moving in the right direction—dramatically so. The percentage of employees certified on time had risen to the high 90s, turnover had fallen year after year, and bench strength for future managers was at an all-time high.
With fundamental talent development processes in place and producing results, my team and I began to tackle the next level of challenges.
Setting our sights on a formal program
As my team and I explored the challenges we needed to address and looked at input from internal sources, benchmarking partners, periodicals, and industry conferences, the more one opportunity jumped out: mentoring.
While formal mentoring programs were producing results in companies large and small, we didn’t have anything in place. It was obvious that we needed to plug this crucial hole, so we went to work.
The project’s needs analysis phase consisted of talking to managers—especially those who were new or struggling—about their challenges and how they tried to overcome them. More important, I wanted to know what they did about it. Whom did they turn to for answers and why?
We learned that our managers seemed to have good relationships, but they were pulling from a base of unvetted tribal knowledge. To me, that reinforced the need for a structured mentoring program.
My team and I put together a proposal, management bought in quickly, and we were off to the races. A small team of experienced managers acted as subject matter experts, and in a short time, we had a program developed. It consisted of material to train mentors, a guide for determining who needed mentors, a standard length for the formal relationship, and conversation guides for each part of the journey.
We launched the program with our midlevel field leadership, who would be responsible for identifying mentors and mentees, and they too bought in without hesitation. By all indications, we had the makings of a successful program in place.
But it wasn’t successful—not even close.
While there was some interest for a few months, the program quickly faded into the background, lost in a mountain of other priorities. By any reasonable measure, it was a failure.
At the time, I didn’t understand why it failed, but later reflection led me to discover three important lessons.
1. Don’t formalize things the culture already does well
I believed that a formal mentoring program was a necessity because so many successful companies had one. Certainly, Valvoline should as well.
Although I had asked managers whom they leaned on when they faced challenges, I didn’t dig deep into those relationships. If I did, I would have discovered that deep professional relationships already existed. Some of them spanned more than a decade, and nearly everyone had one.
Mentoring was alive and well, and we didn’t need a formal program to make it happen. In fact, formalized mentoring would be a step backward for a company culture that believed in improving oneself and developing people for rapid promotion. In a culture like that, mentoring was almost automatic.
That is not to say that formal programs do not often support highly enculturated behaviors. Our training programs emphasized developing people throughout, and our managers had great systems and tools to support them in that effort.
They didn’t need another program. They needed us to continue to refine and sharpen what was already in place.
2. Buy-in is not enthusiasm
At two crucial points in the process, key players bought into a formal mentoring program quickly. Management bought into the proposal, and midlevel field leadership bought into the fleshed-out program.
I took that buy-in as enthusiasm. Instead, it indicated something very different. In hindsight, I should not have been surprised that people bought into the concept. Mentoring was already happening, so it was familiar to them.
What I should have noticed was the lack of questioning, doubt, and challenges. People who are invested in an idea have opinions about it. People who are enthusiastic talk about their ideas. I didn’t hear either of those things.
I’m now convinced that quick and painless buy-in is no indicator of enthusiasm. It may be an indicator of indifference, a desire not to be disruptive, a hesitation to challenge ideas, or a host of other things. In this case, it should have told me that people were not objecting to the program because it was already in place, though less formally than I envisioned.
3. Beware of leaning on your go-to solution
Developing coherent, organized solutions had worked for me in the past. In fact, most of my career was built on formalizing the informal—and I was good at it.
Self-directed learning was still largely a thing of the future, so my skills matched the state of the industry well. Unfortunately, I had begun to believe that my go-to solution was the right solution for everything, and I was becoming blind to other possibilities.
Many aspects of the organization needed formalizing, but mentoring wasn’t one of them. If I was stuck on using that solution, I should have applied it elsewhere.
Even better, I should have expanded my toolbox to include other methods of supporting and creating strong relationships in the field. Over the years, my toolbox has expanded, and I have since—in part because of this experience—embraced self-directed learning.
Learning and growing
While the mentoring program certainly wasn’t my last corporate misstep, it did teach me valuable lessons I would not have learned otherwise. I learned to accept things the culture was doing well and to focus my attention on places that really needed help.
I now understand that quick, painless buy-in may be a warning sign that I’ve missed something. And I no longer promote formalization as the solution to every problem.
Most important, I learned that when your organization values making self-improvement and learning a way of life, talent development leaders must set the example.
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